France pro­vides arms to Le­banon to fight IS

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY ERIC RAN­DOLPH AND VA­LERIE LER­OUX

The first French weapons from a US$3 bil­lion (NT$93.15 bil­lion) Saudi-funded pro­gram will ar­rive in Le­banon on Mon­day as al­lies seek to bol­ster the coun­try’s de­fenses against the Is­lamic State ( IS) group and other ji­hadists press­ing along its Syr­ian bor­der.

Anti-tank guided mis­siles are set to ar­rive at an air force base in Beirut, over­seen by French De­fence Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Le­banese coun­ter­part, Samir Mokbel.

France is ex­pected to de­liver 250 com­bat and trans­port ve­hi­cles, seven Cougar he­li­copters, three small corvette war­ships and a range of sur­veil­lance and com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment over four years as part of the US$3 bil­lion mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram.

It is be­ing en­tirely funded by Saudi Ara­bia, which is keen to see Le­banon’s army de­fend its bor­ders against ji­hadist groups, par­tic­u­larly the Is­lamic State group and al- Qaida- linked AlNusra, in­stead of leav­ing the job to Hezbol­lah mil­i­tants, who are backed by its re­gional ri­val, Iran.

The con­tract also prom­ises seven years of train­ing for the 70,000- strong Le­banese army and 10 years of equip­ment main­te­nance.

“This project is to help us reestab­lish a Le­banese army ca­pa­ble of re­spond­ing to new se­cu­rity re­al­i­ties,” said a French de­fense of­fi­cial.

Since the con­flict in neigh­bor­ing Syria broke out in 2011, Le­banon has faced mount­ing spill-over threats, first from the mil­lions of refugees pour­ing across the bor­der and in­creas­ingly from ji­hadists.

“There are an es­ti­mated 3,000 armed mil­i­tants based on our bor­der, wait­ing for the mo­ment to pen­e­trate into the Bekaa val­ley,” said Hisham Jaber, a for­mer gen­eral now at the Mid­dle East Cen­tre for the Study of Public Re­la­tions in Beirut.

“They haven’t come for tourism or to go ski­ing.”

‘Good for­tune’

For­mer colo­nial power France is ac­tu­ally a late-comer to the con­flict, with al­most all Le­banon’s in­ter­na­tional sup­port com­ing from the United States and the United King­dom in re­cent years.

France only won the con­tract to sup­ply the Le­banese army, ar­gued an­a­lyst Aram Ner­guizian, be­cause Saudi Ara­bia had been frus­trated by U.S. and UK re­fusal to attack the Syr­ian regime in 2013.

“It was good for­tune for the French, but they have a lot to prove. The mo­men­tum of the U.S. and UK de­fense pro­grams in Le­banon is far more con­sol­i­dated,” said Ner­guizian, a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

The chal­lenge has been to find French mil­i­tary equip­ment that Le­banon ac­tu­ally needs, he said, and to en­sure it can be in­te­grated with their ex­ist­ing weapon sys­tems.

Ner­guizian said Le­banon had turned down France’s Gazelle attack he­li­copter, Le­clerc tank and larger war­ships, ei­ther be­cause they were too ex­pen­sive to main­tain or not suited to the com­bat en­vi­ron­ment.

In­stead, the fo­cus is likely to be on radar ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and com­mand- and- con­trol sys­tems, which the Le­banese army cur­rently lacks, as well as trans­port air­craft.

“We ur­gently need he­li­copters. We are cur­rently try­ing to trans­port elite units by truck,” said Jaber.

The Cougar he­li­copters and corvette war­ships must first be built, and the first are not ex­pected for at least 30 months.

‘Night and day’

A key prob­lem has been France’s un­ex­plained re­luc­tance to dis­cuss the de­tails of its mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram with the U.S. and the UK, said Ner­guizian.

“They have per­plexed their UK and U.S. part­ners by not be­ing clear about what is on the list,” he said. “They need to be com­ple­men­tary or it be­comes a prob­lem.”

Wash­ing­ton has pro­vided around three-quar­ters of Le­banon’s for­eign mil­i­tary aid over the past decade — some US$700 mil­lion — as well as Spe­cial Forces teams to train its elite units, ac­cord­ing to IHS Jane’s, a Lon­don-based think tank.

The UK has pro­vided train­ing fa­cil­i­ties as well as watch tow­ers and for­ward op­er­at­ing bases along the bor­der with Syria.

This has led to a dra­matic im­prove­ment in the Le­banese army’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, said Ner­guizian.

“Com­pared with just three years ago, it’s like night and day. They have gone from a con­stab­u­lary po­lice force to be­ing the only mil­i­tary in the world that is de­fend­ing its fron­tiers against ISIS,” he said, us­ing an al­ter­na­tive ab­bre­vi­a­tion for IS.

But work­ing with Le­banon is never sim­ple. The sharp di­vi­sions be­tween its re­li­gious and eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties have been deep­ened by con­flict­ing views on the Syr­ian war.

Hezbol­lah, which is a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal force in Le­banon, sent its fighters to sup­port Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad last year, but many Le­banese still deeply re­sent the As­sad regime which ef­fec­tively col­o­nized the coun­try up to 2005.

Mean­while, Is­rael re­mains con­cerned about any mil­i­tary as­sis­tance that might bol­ster a re­gional ri­val or fall into the hands of Hezbol­lah, which fought a short and bru­tal war against Is­rael as re­cently as 2006.

“The Le­banese army is al­ready well- in­fil­trated by Hezbol­lah,” said an Is­raeli of­fi­cial on con­di­tion of anonymity. “But we un­der­stand the ne­ces­sity of re­in­forc­ing the ca­pac­ity of the Le­banese army.”

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