Simmering Lebanon braces for jihadist offensive
Ed Blanche reports from Beirut
The Lebanese army took delivery of a $25m shipment of US weapons, including 70 M198 155mm howitzers and 26 million rounds of ammunition of various calibres, on 8 February that will boost its capabilities as it girds for what many see as a major confrontation with jihadist groups from neighbouring war-torn Syria.
Lebanese authorities and their western backers are bracing for a new offensive by the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, to carve out an operational base area in northeastern Lebanon and possibly open up a new front aimed at extending the Islamic caliphate proclaimed in northern Iraq in June 2014 to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. It would be a potentially disastrous spillover from the four-year-old Syrian war that has been seeping into Lebanon since 2012.
The big question is: can the 60,000-strong Lebanese military, long written off as little more than a glorified gendarmerie, deliberately kept weak by a sectarian political leadership to forestall any coup attempt, badly under-armed and poorly led, repulse the anticipated Islamist invasion?
Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, told Congress on 4 February that he expects Al Nusra “will try to expand its territory beyond its Syrian operating areas and enhance its operational capabilities in Lebanon, where it already conducts operations.”
On 6 February, Beirut’s As-Safir newspaper quoted “well-informed security sources” as saying that interrogations of captured terrorist suspects revealed that the jihadist groups are seeking to create a “security belt” along the Lebanon-Syria border, with the aim of establishing an IS emirate in the Bekaa Valley, Hizbullah’s heartland in northeastern Lebanon.
That may seem overly ambitious – for the moment anyway, with the jihadists heavily engaged in Iraq and Syria. But three months ago, on 4 November, Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Golani warned that his group plans strikes against Hizbullah in Lebanon.
“The real war in Lebanon is yet to begin,” he told Al Nusra’s media outlet, al-Manara al-Baydaa, “and what is coming will be so bitter that (Hizbullah leader) Hassan Nasrallah will bite his fingers in remorse for what he has done to Sunnis.”
The US shipment has been in the pipeline for some time, but was reportedly expedited because of the growing jihadist threat.
Western military aid to Lebanon, but especially US support, has been limited despite the deteriorating crisis, largely because of concerns advanced weaponry would eventually fall into Hizbullah’s hands and endanger neighbouring Israel. These two fought a 34-day war in the summer of 2006 that ended in a stalemate, much to Israel’s chagrin and which both sides still consider unfinished business.
But in recent months, as the Syrian war has threatened to engulf Lebanon, that has changed. Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the protector of Lebanon’s embattled Sunnis, put up $3bn in December 2013 to purchase advanced weapons from France, the former colonial power, that will reportedly include helicopters, armoured vehicles, anti-tank missiles, artillery and communications systems.
The army is holding the line – but only just. It’s so stretched that in recent clashes with jihadists on the northeastern border the Lebanese troops had to communicate with cellphones because their radios didn’t work. In one battle, the army’s artillery detachment ran out of 155mm shells in the middle of the fighting.
The Saudi grant, which amounts to more than twice the LAF’s annual budget, was not formally signed until 4 November 2014, and has still not produced any arms deliveries to the LAF. This is largely because of political squabbling between the Saudis and the French, with Riyadh insisting on guarantees the weapons would not fall into Hizbullah’s hands.
In August 2014, the Saudis gave Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni-dominated Future Movement and a former prime minister, an emergency $1bn to buy urgently needed weapons and ammunition and sidestep the political haggling over the $3bn aid plan after jihadist insurgents stormed the flashpoint Lebanese town of Arsal, killing 16 soldiers before they were finally repulsed.
The first shipment of the $3bn package is now expected to arrive in Lebanon in April.
If the warnings of a jihadist offensive are correct, that will not be a moment too soon. There are currently an estimated 3,000-4,000 jihadists linked to IS or JN holed up in the Qalamoun region.
The speeded-up delivery of the powerful US guns marks a significant shift by the Americans, who have limited military aid to non-lethal systems such as armoured Humvees, communications systems and Vietnam-era Huey helicopters over the last decade.
The artillery, if properly employed, should allow the Lebanese troops to hammer the jihadist groups at long range in their bases across the mountainous Qalamoun region of southwestern Syria that borders northeastern Lebanon, which is seen as the primary target of the anticipated jihadist push.
The M198s, which are no longer is service with the US Army and were brought out of mothballs just for the Lebanese, underline US concerns that the LAF is in grave need of heavy firepower if it is combat the growing threat of the jihadists and the chaos they could unleash on the shores of the Mediterranean on Israel’s doorstep.
US military aid over the last decade has totalled around $1bn. But hasn’t done much to improve the fighting efficiency of the Lebanese army, or bolster the authority of the state by challenging the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, which remains by far the strongest force in Lebanon and the most powerful non-state actor in the region.
The Middle East Institute observed in a recent analysis that “the most immediate danger to Lebanon is not from an IS incursion from Syria, but would be from fracturing of the Lebanese Armed Forces due to sectarian tensions.
“By remaining a united, effective force with widespread popular support, the LAF has thus far helped Lebanon weather the sectarian storm. As the dust settles on a politically isolated and militarily weary Hizbullah, only a strong LAF can ensure a smooth transition to sovereignty and normalcy.”
The multi-sect army fractured during the 1975-90 civil war, when several brigades allied themselves with the Maronite Catholics, and other Christian or Muslim militias.
Military intelligence was long dominated by the Maronites, but since the civil war it’s been taken over by the Syrians, and latterly Hizbullah, Damascus’ key Lebanese ally. Hizbullah has also gained considerable influence over the army leadership, and indeed now depends on the military to maintain security inside Lebanon while the group concentrates its main forces in Syria to support the embattled regime.
There has been growing dissatisfaction within the army, and the Christian and Sunni communities, over the way that Hizbullah, and thus Iran, has steadily gained control over the Lebanese military, particularly Military Intelligence – to the point that some Sunni soldiers, including some senior officers, are reported to have defected to Al Nusra over the last year or so.
A key problem for the military is the political vacuum that has existed in Lebanon for several years. A succession of coalition governments, most including Hizbullah, have come and gone. Hizbullah brought down the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in March 2013.
All of this leaves the military without political direction at a critical time when Sunnis are increasingly questioning its neutrality.
“The weakness of the army is not in terms of its capabilities,” Bassel Sallhouk, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, observed recently. “The weakness of the LAF is a consequence of the sectarianised environment in Lebanon and the paralysis of the political establishment.”
This article by Beirut-based Ed Blanche is Exclusive to The Middle East Online . . .