BEIRUT: With units deployed in the south, along the border with Syria, around the southern suburbs of Beirut and in Tripoli, the security forces’ resources are spread dangerously thin, according to experts.
When Speaker Nabih Berri said he would prod the government this week into recruiting 3,000 Army members and 1,000 General Security and Internal Security Forces personnel, he did so conscious of the fact that he had been the target of at least two planned assassination attempts in the past four months. His call was welcomed by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who said deployment levels for both the Army and the security forces have reached unprecedented levels, requiring more manpower along the border.
While the call for enlistment is set to be launched and will be welcomed by aspiring cadets, especially in the north and Bekaa Valley where recruitment levels have consistently been above average levels, experts warn that merely filling quotas will not strengthen the performance of Lebanon’s security forces.
They argue that new staff should be selected to appease the country’s corrosive demographic divide and guarantee effectiveness rather than rely on the strength of numbers.
The Army’s spokesperson told The Daily Star that recruiters were looking to fill low-rank positions, namely privates.
“Whoever has the qualifications is able to apply for a higher post by taking exams,” he said. The ideal candidate, he said, “should know how to read and write at least,” and pass the Grade 12 official examinations.
“We are happy with any additional number of recruits because this will help us maintain security in the country,” he added.
The spokesperson for the Internal Security Forces also depicted the recruitment process chiefly as a numbers game.
“We are preparing to recruit 2,500 people. We need a lot,” he said. He argued that the ISF had fallen behind in recruitment, saying its current staff of 27,000 people was below staffing targets from 1991.
Fourteen years on, he said, Lebanon’s crime scene has changed.
“The population has increased, the types of criminals and crimes have changed, but to this day we haven’t arrived to 29,000.”
The ISF’s recruitment program will focus on entry-level sergeants. All that is formally required for the job is a high school degree with average grades.
“There’s a profile for military careers,” explained Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington D.C.
“Sometimes it’s not necessarily abided by. There’s a tendency to go with whatever fits the quota, which is alright during peacetime, but not in times of instability.”
Military manpower, including the navy and air force, has already seen expansion in the last four years, from a force of 59,000 in 2010 to some 65,000 this year. However, of that number, Lebanon’s fighting force stands at 30,000.
“That sounds like a lot unless you disperse them across the country. If the LAF was only centered in the south, or only in the north, that’s one pressure point, but they are doing these things all at once,” explained Nerguizian. “There is a shortfall in the sheer scale of manpower required to do this.”
The armed forces include 11 infantry brigades, five intervention regiments and three elite special operation units, and according to Nerguizian, its principle combat units are undermanned and overstretched.
“The burden has become such that it’s like [there is] not enough butter on too much bread,” he said.
Key risk areas for the Army include border areas from the Arida crossing down to the Bekaa Valley, as well as Tripoli, Akkar, Hermel and the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Recruitment is first and foremost a financial issue, explained Mario Abou Zeid of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“Now with Saudi support, the Army is able to have the opportunity to recruit,” he said.
In December of last year, Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion to enable the Lebanese Army to acquire weapons from France, making the grant the single largest contribution of military aid in the Army’s history.
Containing the security risks from spillover in Syria and now Iraq has required that the security forces position themselves in areas long neglected by the government, namely the border areas with Syria.
To that end, the Army in particular has been stealthily building its position on the ground by establishing two border regiments along the Syrian frontier totaling some 1,300 men and, according to Nerguizian, hopes to set up two more, funding and manpower permitting.
Still, “it’s not a matter of recruiting more officers,” he said. The key challenge is establishing sectarian equity in the recruitment process. Due to over-recruiting from the impoverished north, 35 percent of the Army is made up of Sunni soldiers making it the single largest demographic, far larger than the Shiite or Maronite contingents.
“It’s supposed to be a mutli-sectarian fighting force, but key demographics have been under-recruited,” Nerguizian explained.
Apart from equity for the country’s sects, Abou Zeid pointed to other concerns.
“With thousands of new members in lower ranks, there’s always the possibility, and the Army is aware of this risk, to have some recruitees be aligned with fundamentalists or pledging allegiance to terror groups.”
The Army said the possibility of infiltration by hard-liners would be avoided with thorough background checks and close monitoring, especially in the initial period following their recruitment.