US backing Lebanese Army to check jihadists, Hezbollah challenge
Beirut- The delivery of additional US military aid to the Lebanese Army has been seen as the superpower increasing its commitment to the Lebanese government and the independence of its institutions.
The latest arms shipment, denied by the Lebanese Army but reported by local media to have arrived at Riyak Airbase in eastern Lebanon on April 25, is in addition to the delivery of US ordnance a week earlier, also at Riyak. The deliveries are considered part of a bid to bolster the capabilities of the Lebanese Army and wean it from its historical reliance on Hezbollah.
Lebanon is the fifth-largest recipient of US military aid, receiving $220 million in 2016, including an August shipment that included 50 armoured vehicles. Lebanon also receives wide support from an international coalition of countries seeking to prop up its government in the face of hostility in neighbouring Syria and prevent further destabilisation in a country in which about one-quarter of the population are Syrian refugees.
The Lebanese Army has recently made significant advances in its battle against the country’s militant base. During operations in the town of Arsal, the army arrested ten alleged extremists and killed an Islamic State (ISIS) emir in the Syrian region of Qalamoun. The extremists were thought to be part of a group responsible for the 2014 storming of army and police stations in Arsal and the kidnapping of Lebanese soldiers, whose fate remains unknown.
The Lebanese Army also cracked down on security in the rural areas of Al Qaa and Baalbek to root out armed militias. Helicopters and heavy artillery have been deployed during the operations, reportedly resulting in the death of approximately 20 fighters.
The frequency of Lebanese Army operations appears to have increased in tandem with the levels of US military support, suggesting a cessation of military aid to the country is unlikely. Continued US support of the army can be expected to signal to Hezbollah and its Iranian backers that the United States considers primary responsibility for ensuring Lebanon’s security as belonging to the Lebanese Army.
A strengthened Lebanese Army would also sideline claims from Hezbollah that the group’s presence was a necessary aspect of Lebanese security. An enhanced Lebanese Army would ease concerns expressed by President Michel Aoun that the Iranian-backed group was a necessary complement to the national army.
Speaking to Egyptian television’s CBC channel in February, Aoun said: “As long as Israel continues to occupy lands and the Lebanese Army is not strong enough to stand up to it, we feel the need to have the resistance army (Hezbollah) as a complement to the Lebanese Army’s actions.”
Any limitation on Hezbollah’s legitimacy in Lebanon will also act as a counter to Iran’s wider influence within the region and undermine the support both factions have been able to extend to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Dory Chamoun, leader of the centre-right National Liberal Party, told the London-based Al Arab newspaper the delivery of US aid marked a positive step, “confirming American support of the Lebanese military and reinforcing its presence after a period of general impression that the US had abandoned Lebanon.”
Chamoun said the Lebanese military had requested the aid be delivered to Riyak Airbase specifically “to ensure maximum confidentiality about the nature and type of the incoming weapons, something which would have been difficult to do by using Beirut airport.”
“The army cannot afford to have leaks of this nature,” he added.
Chamoun added that the 2014 kidnapping of police officers and soldiers during the battle for Arsal marked a “major breach in security” the army would be reluctant to repeat. Further US involvement in Lebanon would help “avoid similar breaches and… stop the war in Syria from spilling over to Lebanon and to help Lebanon defend its security.”