Beirut, Lebanon – A Lebanese Air Force helicopter flies over a blurry landscape of green fields and snow-capped mountains, promising tourists a view from above over the Levantine country.
The image posted on the Armed Forces website leaves out the seaside and is a poorly taken photo that fails to capture the sprawling beauty of the tiny Mediterranean Sea country. The idea, however, is ingenious and indispensable at such desperate times.
Each ride would cost just $ 150, but payment must be made in cash. Dollars are scarce in a country that is rapidly depleting its reserves since the economic crisis exacerbated in 2019.
The money is intended to help the cash-strapped institution pay its soldiers, one with the civilians in their shortage and struggling to make ends meet.
As the Lebanese currency collapsed, losing 95 percent of its value last month, the Lebanese armed forces were also affected.
The institution employs around more than 80,000 men, most of whom earned the equivalent of $ 800 per month but now earn between $ 70 and $ 90. This is a long way from what they need to buy food, pay for their travel, educate their children and for health care.
Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said the law of the jungle would prevail if the forces were not immediately helped.
“With only $ 2 to $ 3 a day, soldiers are unable to cover transportation costs. How are they expected to guard the borders and keep the peace within? Nader asked. “All the ingredients for civil war are there. If we don’t have a functioning army, it will be total chaos.
Since the end of a bloody 15-year civil war in 1990, the Lebanese armed forces have marched cautiously and effectively between the country’s many sects and maintained the peace inside.
They have maintained calm on an unstable border with Israel since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia that opposes Israel. They also had to navigate a power struggle with Hezbollah, often seen as a challenger for them.
They were guarding Lebanon’s borders against the armed group ISIL (ISIS) as it expanded into neighboring countries and contained the threat from Jabhat al-Nusra – a former al-Qaeda affiliate who appeared at the scene. Syrian conflict.
Moreover, it is the only institution in Lebanon which is respected by the Lebanese people and exercises a kind of moral authority when the political class is deeply despised for its corruption and ineffectiveness.
A gaping hole in their pockets has caused panic among the highest levels in the hierarchy over how to feed their men and provide for their families so that they can continue to guard the country’s many troubled borders.
The armed forces could collapse if they are not supported, warned Lebanese army chief Joseph Aoun in a video posted on Twitter. “How can a soldier provide for a family with a salary that does not exceed $ 90?” ” He asked.
“Where are we going? What are you waiting for? What are you planning to do? We have warned more than once of the danger of the situation,” Aoun urged the political class to drop his indifference to the plight of people and to develop a plan.
The ruling elite, however, ignored it and continued to bicker over ministerial posts preventing the formation of a government needed to negotiate the bailout with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the end of last month, Aoun rushed to France to rally support from the international community and save the armed forces.
“The head of the Lebanese army informed us of the problem and we are very worried about the possible disintegration of the Lebanese army,” a French diplomatic source told Al Jazeera.
“France has started to help with food rations, medicines and basic equipment, but a lot more is needed. We tried to mobilize international partners during the conference.
More than 20 countries attended the conference in Paris in mid-June, but they did not reveal details on exactly how they intended to support the Lebanese armed forces.
The international community fears that if the armed forces disintegrate, local sectarian militias will rise up in a country poised to catapult themselves into utter chaos.
Lebanon has been an oasis of stability in the region struggling with a myriad of conflicts and the last outpost for refugees from war-torn countries fleeing to Europe.
The survival of the Lebanese army is essential to avoid a new wave of migration to Europe and a bulwark in any future confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.
“We need cash”
Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese general, said the military needed cash support, not just aid. “Paris didn’t mention cash, they don’t allow cash for foreign aid and just help with materials – ammunition and so on. », Declared the general.
“What we need is cash. If a soldier earns $ 70, $ 80, or $ 90, then what would be his moral? If you can add $ 100 to $ 200 to his salary so that he can at least survive, that would be a lot better. We have about 80,000 plus soldiers in the military and they are all almost penniless. They need at least $ 100 for a soldier per month in cash assistance. “
Otherwise, he warned, most soldiers could leave the forces. “Many are thinking of finding another job to earn a living. Others want to leave the country.
At the start of the year, the numbers fell sharply, at least 3,000 less than previously reported.
The United States has offered an additional $ 15 million in aid to the Lebanese military for 2021 following a conference in May between Chief Aoun and senior State and Defense Department officials. But it’s still a trickle of the billions that the United States distributes to Israel every year.
The Lebanese armed forces have sent an SOS to the world powers: “Help us before it is too late. “