BY ARAM NERGUIZIAN, Carnegie Middle East Center, 05 May 2020
The Lebanese armed forces’ Covid-19 response has been a success, but potential problems remain.
For more than a month, Lebanon’s national security institutions have been enforcing a March 21 government stay-at-home order to limit, contain, and reverse the spread of the novel coronavirus. On the day of the announcement, the government’s Disaster Risk Management Unit reported 206 confirmed cases in Lebanon. More than a month later, on May 4, Lebanon’s official cumulative number of cases was 740, including 205 recoveries and 25 deaths.
It would be easy to characterize the country’s reaction to the coronavirus and the military’s public order mission as relative successes. Official data show a tentative slowdown and flattening of the national Covid-19 caseload, while the Lebanese military and military families had recorded less than 30 cases by April 28.
Nonetheless, the mitigation challenges of Lebanon’s initial lockdown may pale by comparison to the real mix of risks and critical uncertainties with which the military may have to contend in the future. In the short to medium term, these include the uncertain effects of a breakdown in social and physical distancing and the need to prepare for the possible effects of a second wave of infections and associated public order missions. In the longer term, the challenge will shift to how the military will plan and resource for public health crises in 2021 and beyond, without compromising its preference to remain focused on traditional priorities tied to national defense.
The “general mobilization” directive to maintain public order was rolled out with minimal prior coordination with the armed forces. Senior officers described being issued an order from the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab with little meaningful preplanning tied to Covid-19 risk mitigation and containment protocols. They were given only limited visibility on the availability of personal protection equipment for troops tasked with maintaining order.
The military needed to quickly pivot to dealing with the crisis. Given the importance of silo-breaking and cross-departmental cooperation, senior military decisionmakers were presented with several options to structure internal coordination. The military established a focused Covid-19 crisis response committee, composed of four officers from each of the military’s personnel, operations, military intelligence, and medical services branches.
Rather than opting for senior officers, the committee is composed of mid-level officers ranging from the ranks of major to colonel. They are empowered to deconflict as a team, coordinate quickly up the chain of command to the Office of the Commander, and communicate vertically within their discreet military lines of effort. The sourcing of medical supplies and donations is directed through the military’s medical services branch, not its logistics branch.
No less than 40,000 troops—half of Lebanon’s total national military manpower—took part in the public order mission. To mitigate community spread and preserve force readiness, a “fourteen days duty, fourteen days off duty” rotation system was adopted. Nonessential personnel at Lebanese military headquarters were scaled back, with 70 percent of officers and 50 percent of noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel reporting for duty. A floor of the military hospital was reserved solely for Covid-19 cases and currently counts 20 intensive care unit beds.
To offset the limited supply of facemasks and other types of personal protection equipment, no less than two major units were tasked with producing masks at an initial rate of 200 to 250 units per day. By April 4, the armed forces’ senior officers felt more confident that the force possessed the basics of short-term protection for approximately 20,000 active duty personnel.
The net result of these measures, combined with a civilian stay-at-home compliance rate that the military estimated at 80 percent, was that as of May 3 the military reported no more than six Covid-19 cases within its active duty ranks and no more than 20 cases among military families and retired personnel. Meanwhile, some 700 members of the armed forces remain on fourteen days of mandatory leave to protect their units due to exposure to potentially at-risk communities, or because they appeared to be symptomatic.
Although these results seem encouraging, military planners and decisionmakers fear that the lockdown through the end of April might have been the easy part. The loss of economic activity during confinement, the continued decline of vital socioeconomic metrics, and the resumption of popular protests seem to herald the collapse of social distancing. In parallel, a noticeable number of personnel have shown increasing lapses in enforcing social distancing within the armed forces. As a result, military planners are asking themselves not if but when a second wave of infections might hit Lebanon.
In the short term the military will have to take two risk-mitigating actions. It will have to consolidate, strengthen, and properly integrate protocols and standard operating procedures to contain future infections from the level of small units up to headquarters. It will also have to build up a stockpile of protective medical equipment to deal with a possible second wave of infections. This will include coordinating donations and additional deliveries of equipment from Lebanon’s military partners, including the United States.
The Covid-19 pandemic also has longer-term implications. Like militaries in the West and NATO, past and current Lebanese military planning guidance under the 2013–2017 and the 2018–2022 Capabilities Development Plans has prioritized the continued development of highly specialized units to counter chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. However, it has not focused on an effort to maximize protection of the bulk of the Lebanese military under pandemic conditions, while enforcing a nationwide public order mission.
The military has shown significant agility in its Covid-19 response. However, it has not been relieved of its pre-pandemic national security missions. These include maintaining stability along the border with Syria, living up to international commitments in the south of the country tied to United Nations resolutions, and maintaining adequate force readiness to defend Lebanon’s territorial integrity. That the Lebanese government may also see the armed forces as an instrument to maintain public order at a time of social and economic unrest in the country is a poisoned chalice that could undermine a military that has fought hard to be taken seriously as Lebanon’s sole legitimate national security institution.