Back to the brink? Lebanon braces for jihadist push

Friday 08/05/2015
Receiving weapons from France

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.