Beirut, Lebanon – A Lebanese Air Force helicopter flies over a blurred landscape of green fields and snow-capped mountains, promising tourists a view of the Levantine country from above.
The image posted on the Armed Forces website omits the sea and is a poorly captured shot that fails to capture the sprawling beauty of the tiny Mediterranean land. However, the idea is brilliant and much needed in such desperate times.
Each ride is only $ 150, but payment must be made in cash. Dollars are scarce in a country that has been rapidly depleting its reserves since the deepening economic crisis in 2019.
The money will help the insolvent institution pay its soldiers, one with needy civilians struggling to survive.
When the Lebanese currency crashed last month and lost 95 percent of its value, the Lebanese armed forces were also hit.
The institution employs approximately 80,000 men, most of whom made the equivalent of $ 800 a month but are now taking home between $ 70 and $ 90. That is a far cry from what they need to buy groceries, pay for travel, raise their children, and get healthcare.
Sami Nader, a Lebanese political scientist, said the jungle law would prevail if the armed forces were not helped immediately.
âWith only 2 to 3 US dollars a day that they earn, the soldiers cannot cover the transport costs. How are they supposed to guard the borders and keep the peace within? âAsked Nader. âAll the ingredients of the civil war are there. If we don’t have a functioning army, it will be total chaos. “
Since the end of a 15-year bloody civil war in 1990, the Lebanese armed forces have gently and effectively stepped between the country’s many sects and kept the peace within.
They have remained calm on an unstable border with Israel since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia opposing Israel. They also had to strike a balance of power with Hezbollah, which is often seen as a challenger to them.
They guarded the borders of Lebanon against the armed group ISIL (ISIS), which was spreading in neighboring countries, and kept the threat from Jabhat al-Nusra – a former al-Qaeda subsidiary that appeared in the Syria conflict.
In addition, it is the only institution in Lebanon that is respected by the Lebanese people and exercises some sort of moral authority when the political class is deeply despised for its corruption and inefficiency.
A gaping hole in their pockets has caused panic at the highest levels of the hierarchy about how to feed their husbands and support their families so they can continue to guard the country’s many troubled borders.
The armed forces could collapse if not supported, Lebanese army chief Joseph Aoun warned in a video posted on Twitter. “How can a soldier support a family with a salary of $ 90 or less?” He asked.
“Where are we going? What are you waiting for? What are you planning to do? We have warned of the danger of the situation more than once,” Aoun admonished the political class to give up their indifference to the plight of the people and come up with a plan.
The ruling elite, however, paid no heed and continued to argue over cabinet positions stopping the formation of the government necessary to negotiate the bailout with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Aoun rushed to France late last month to gather support from the international community and rescue the armed forces.
“The Lebanese army chief has made us aware of the problem and we are very concerned about the possible disintegration of the Lebanese army,” a French diplomatic source told Al Jazeera.
âFrance has started to help with food rations, medicines and basic supplies, but much more is needed. We tried to mobilize international partners in the conference. “
The Paris conference in mid-June was attended by more than 20 countries but did not provide any information on how exactly they intended to support the Lebanese armed forces.
The international community fears that if the armed forces break up, local sectarian militias would emerge in a country ripe to be catapulted into complete chaos.
Lebanon is an oasis of stability in the region, grappling with innumerable conflicts, and the last outpost of refugees from war-torn countries who fled to Europe.
The survival of the Lebanese army is crucial to avoid another wave of migrations to Europe and a bulwark in a future confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.
“We need cash”
Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese general, said the army needed money, not just help. “Paris did not mention cash, they do not allow cash as development aid and only help with materials – ammunition, etc.,” said the general.
âWhat we need is cash. If a soldier makes $ 70 or $ 80 or $ 90, what is his morale? If you can add $ 100-200 to his salary so he can at least survive, it would be much better. We have over 80,000 soldiers in the army and they are all nearly broke. You need at least $ 100 a month in cash for a soldier. “
Otherwise, he warned, most soldiers could leave the armed forces. âMany think about finding another job to make a living. Others want to leave the country. “
At the beginning of the year, the numbers fell sharply, at least 3,000 fewer than previously reported.
The United States offered the Lebanese military an additional $ 15 million in aid for 2021 following a conference in May between Chief Aoun and senior officials from the State Department and Defense. But it’s still a trickle of the billions the US spends on Israel annually.
The Lebanese armed forces have sent an SOS to the world powers – “Help us before it’s too late”.