Back to the brink? Lebanon braces for jihadist push
Beirut - Now that spring has come to the rugged Lebanon-Syria border, the Lebanese Army is bracing for a new offensive by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the Qalamoun mountains region of Syria, possibly aided by al-Nusra Front, aimed at establishing a foothold in northern Lebanon and extending the Islamic rule to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.
The big question is: Can Lebanon’s multi-sect, 65,000-strong military, which has long been written off as little more than a glorified gendarmerie, badly under-armed and long plagued by the feuding among the country’s political leaders, hold the line?
So far, it has — but only just. However, help is at hand. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are being provided with new weapons and other counter-insurgency equipment in a belated effort by the United States, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that should give the military the firepower to beat off most incursions.
On April 20th, the army took delivery of the first shipment of French arms paid for by Saudi Arabia under a $3 billion grant made in December 2013 to counter the jihadist threat emanating from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
The shipment included 48 MILAN anti-tank missiles, encrypted communications systems and night-vision goggles. The goggles are arguably the most crucial part of the package because they will allow Lebanese soldiers to see their foes in darkness, a vital advantage in combat.
The communications systems will be invaluable too. In one recent engagement, Lebanese troops had to use their personal cell phones to communicate because their army-issue radio system did not work.
Over the next three years, the French are expected to provide seven AS532 transport helicopters, six SA-341 Gazelle utility/attack helicopters and an unspecified number of aerial drones that will give the army warning on jihadist movements and deployment.
In February, the LAF belatedly received a $25 million shipload of 70 towed M198 155 howitzers and 26 million rounds of ammunition of various calibres from the United States.
LAF commanders have warned that the jihadist offensive is expected within the first few weeks. It has the potential to be the most dangerous spillover of the four-year-old civil war in Syria into Lebanon.
The army has 5,000-7,000 troops deployed along the north-eastern border, centred on the flashpoint town of Arsal. There are skirmishes almost daily as the jihadists probe the Lebanese defences, giving weight to expectations that an offensive is looming. The jihadists are estimated to have more than 3,000 fighters in the Qalamoun area.
As long ago as November 4, 2014, Al-Nusra leader Muhammad al- Jolani warned he planned strikes against Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. “The real war in Lebanon is yet to begin,” he told the group’s media outlet al-Manara al-Bayda, “and what’s coming will be so bitter that Hassan Nasrallah will bite his fingers in remorse for what he has done to Sunnis.”
Hezbollah, Iran’s prized proxy and deemed a more powerful force than the army, is heavily committed to fighting Syrian rebels to save the embattled Damascus regime. It has increasingly relied on the LAF to maintain internal security in Lebanon against the swelling jihadist threat.
“The bulk of Hezbollah’s forces are in Syria, which is more important to Hezbollah’s grand strategy,” security analyst Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese Army general, told The Arab Weekly. “There’s no doubt that fighting on two fronts would stretch their military capabilities to the limit.”
Even with the flow of new weapons, and despite the much-trumpeted jihadist threat, the LAF remains gripped by the interminable sectarian politics that plague Lebanon. Quarrelling political leaders cannot agree on top command changes in the military and security forces because all want to get officers from their own sects into key positions.
The hapless government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam is hamstrung by a paralysed parliament and an 11-month-old leadership vacuum in which no successor has yet been found for president Michel Suleiman, a former army commander, whose term ended May 25, 2014.
There are other political problems impeding the military, particularly its relationship to Hezbollah, Iran’s prized Shia proxy and a vital ally of the embattled Damascus regime.
There is widespread dissatisfaction within Lebanon’s military, and among Lebanon’s Sunnis who largely support the Syrian rebels, because, as Beirut-based political analyst Michael Young observes, “The army will want to avoid being seen as collaborating in a military action operating on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah while most of the Arab world is battling them.”
This has raised concerns that the army could fracture along sectarian lines, as it did during the 1975- 90 civil war. Another split like that could be cataclysmic for Lebanon.