Lebanese army seeks to adjust to Saudi aid halt
Dubai - The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are regarded by many as the last and maybe the only institution keeping the country unified and fairly stable despite the non-stop political, security and economic problems sweeping it and the region.
However, the recent move by Saudi Arabia in freezing a $4 billion grant to supply the LAF with arms from France and other sources has raised concern about the ability of the Lebanese military to continue to perform its job despite the mounting challenges emanating from the spillover of the civil war in Syria.
The Saudis grew suspicious of the LAF relations with the Shia militant movement Hezbollah after seeing it run its gunmen freely across the army-manned checkpoints into and outside of Syria to help the regime there, according to an Arab Gulf official.
Also the Saudis were caught off-guard by the surprise order of the Military Court of Cassation to release former minister Michel Samaha from jail. He was caught red-handed in 2011 sneaking explosive changes into Lebanon to be used in, what he was captured on tape saying, “attacks on Muslim and Christian” targets in northern Lebanon to spark an internal sectarian conflict. He admitted the bombs were handed to him by Syrian intelligence chief Ali al-Mamlouk. The Military Court gave him a reduced sentence of four years before his case was appealed.
“A military tribunal released Michel Semaha from jail, which shows how much influence Hezbollah has on the Lebanese Army,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir after concluding talks with French officials on March 4th.
The LAF has always long been short on financial resources, and the main steady contributor since the Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon in 2005 has been the United States.
Between 2005 and 2015, the US provided Lebanon with military aid worth at least $1 billion. This helped the LAF grow to a 70,000-strong force equipped with weapons, including the M198 155-howitzer guns, M109 self-propelled guns, M60 tanks, TOW anti-tank guided missiles and Cessna Caravan reconnaissance planes armed with Hellfire missiles.
The Lebanese government and parliament endorsed over the past few months a budget plan for the LAF to purchase defence systems worth $1.2 billion to be spent in 2016 and 2017.
According to LAF sources, the command is working hard on salvaging the deals that were supposed to be covered by the second Saudi grant by securing funding either from the US, whose military aid was recently doubled to $140 million annually, or by the Lebanese treasury.
“Top priority for the LAF is to bolster its air force and make sure the contract to acquire a squadron of A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft stays on track and the planes start entering service next fall,” an LAF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Lebanese forces have started training on the light attack aircraft that will be armed with highly accurate Hellfire missiles and Mark83 and Mark84 low-drag smart bombs.
The attack in August 2014 by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front on LAF positions near the town of Ersal in east Lebanon along the Syrian borders took officials by surprise and raised concern of ISIS spreading in the mostly Sunni northern Lebanon.
ISIS and al-Nusra Front started targeting predominantly Shia villages in the Beqaa valley and sent in suicide bombers targeting various neighbourhoods in the country in retaliation for Hezbollah intervention in the Syrian civil war on the Assad regime’s side.
The LAF retaliated by launching a series of assaults on terrorist positions along the frontiers with Syria, especially between the towns of Ersal and Ras Baalbek, mountainous territory known to be rugged.
“Air power was key in the operations against the terrorist positions, especially ISIS,” said Lebanese Air Force Commander Brigadier-General Ghassan Shahin. “We need precision weapons and eyes in the skies to keep track of the movement of the enemy and we did this with the little we have.”
Addressing a crowd of professional airmen at a symposium in Bahrain, Shahin spoke about how the Lebanese Air Force utilised its engineering skills to convert Romanian-built Puma helicopters into attack gunships armed with 250-kg and 500-kg bombs and 30-mm machine guns.
Some eight Puma helicopters and nine French-built Gazelle helicopters were donated by the United Arab Emirates to Lebanon in 2006 to assist the LAF in combating terrorists who took refuge in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
“We have used the Cessna Caravan planes in night-time air raids to illuminate with laser the enemy targets for the Puma pilots to drop their bombs or 3-inch rockets at the enemy positions with high accuracy,” he said while showing videos of the precision attacks on ISIS positions.
Shahin underlined the importance of air power for the LAF fight against terrorists. According to military sources, this is why the Lebanese military will make sure the Super Tucano deal will not be affected by the Saudi decision and the attack planes will be delivered on time.
LAF Commander-General Jean Kahwaji visited Washington in February, where he held a series of meetings with senior American officials, who have all reportedly pledged to maintain the military aid and even increase it to ensure the LAF retains its current role in the war on terrorism.
The LAF mounted a successful pre-emptive strike against ISIS on March 10th, proving that it was determined to take the fight to the enemy and keep up the momentum in the war on terrorism with or without the Saudi grant.
“We are confident the international community will not forget about us,” said a senior Lebanese military official who asked not to be named. “They saw how the LAF managed to confront ISIS and al- Qaeda on its own without needing direct support from the international alliance fighting terrorism in Syria and Iraq, and we are sure they will continue to do so. The last thing the world powers want is to see another country fall for the terrorists.”