French President François Hollande, left, welcomes his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman in Paris on March 5. (ALAIN JOCARD/ / AFP/Getty Images)
BEIRUT — The International Support Group for Lebanon has pledged US $17.8 million for the Lebanese Army, which has been overstretched from the Syrian conflict spillover and increase in terrorist activities.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman told foreign ministers of 10 countries at a conference in Paris this week that international support for the Lebanese Army is vital for the country to implement a national defense strategy.
“I hope that the international decision to support the Army is realized on the ground [because this would allow us to] implement the defense strategy that I presented to the Dialogue Committee last year,” Suleiman said during a press conference at the Élysée Palace in Paris.
Suleiman submitted a defense strategy last year suggesting the incorporation of Hezbollah’s arms under Lebanese Army command.
The Lebanese Armed Forces’ Capabilities Development Plan (CDP) would ensure it can fulfill its duties as security deteriorates in the region over the next five years. The plan, which has an initial budget of $1.6 billion to cover the 2013-17 period, is the first attempt by the Lebanese Armed Forces to formulate a strategic vision, moving beyond the focus on immediate requirements that have influenced foreign military assistance allocations in the past.
The armed forces have identified four main goals that will shape the plan: defending Lebanon from external aggression and securing its land and maritime borders; supporting the Internal Security Forces, especially in the fight against terrorism; implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah; and supporting Lebanese civil defense in disaster/humanitarian relief operations.
France contributed $10 million, Norway $4.8 million and Finland $3 million, according to the Élysée Palace. The grants were transferred to a multi-donor trust fund, managed by the World Bank.
Suleiman, during the meeting, also thanked Saudi Arabia for its $3 billion grant to the Army, while hailing the Italian government for providing equipment and training to Lebanese troops, according to the presidential statement.
The Saudi grant, described by Suleiman as the largest ever given to the country’s armed forces, represents the more proactive role Saudi Arabia is playing in Middle Eastern politics, according to Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Beirut and Dubai.
Kahwaji said that with the Lebanese military receiving a grant that is double its existing budget, the centralized government will have more power and will be well-equipped to deal with the security threats. In addition, the capability will present a counterbalance to Hezbollah, which is the main anchor of military might in Lebanon.
“The Lebanese Army will have access to weaponry worth $3 billion from France,” he said. “The Lebanese follow the French doctrines and are expected to equip their special forces, naval capabilities and air support capabilities.”
Lebanon has 12,000 special operations forces who have been “unevenly equipped.”
“The special forces, I expect, will be the first to be armed with high-tech equipment in addition to communications systems and short range air defense systems,” he said.
However, Yezed Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the obscureness of the grant may pose a challenge if not incorporated into the CDP.
“The unclarity of how the grant funds will be utilized could pose a challenge for the CDP,” he said. “If the Saudis said that the grant would be to support the CDP of the Lebanese Armed Forces that would provide a very strong boost to the [armed forces] and help them accelerate their development.”
Retired Lebanese Brig. Gen. Elias Farhat, an independent strategic analyst, said that, despite the grant, the Lebanese Armed Forces are facing challenges presented by Israeli pressures.
“What is unclear is the French readiness to cooperate fully especially when it comes to equipping the Air Force and air defense,” Farhat said.
“In Lebanon, there are no fixed-wing aircraft and what we are in need of are two or three squadrons to establish many objectives; furthermore, the [armed forces have] no warning radar systems, and the 155 howitzer artillery guns are of a reduced capability,” he said.
The Lebanese Navy is also in need of patrol boats with rocket launchers as well as arming the Army’s Gazelle helicopters.
“Currently, the French are in a hard situation as Israeli and US pressure increases to limit the capabilities provided,” Farhat said. ■