BEIRUT — The United States recently renewed military support and assistance for the Lebanese Army following a sequence of threatening remarks from Israeli officials on a potential “disastrous war” with Lebanon.

A particular thorn in Israel’s side is the Block 9 oil and gas field located in a disputed territory off the countries’ maritime borders.

Choosing sides?

Even as tensions remain high between Israel and Lebanon, U.S. military support for Lebanon is expanding.

In an official statement, the U.S Embassy in Lebanon said: “We remain committed to a secure and stable Lebanon. With U.S.-provided weapons, equipment, and training, the Lebanese Armed Forces continues to develop combat capabilities that will ensure that they remain a nationally unifying force, a bulwark against extremism and terrorism, and the only legitimate defender of Lebanon.”

The Lebanese Army has received a new shipment of ammunition and grenade launchers as well as eight additional Bradley armored vehicles worth more than $11.7 million, all within the framework of the U.S. military aid program to the country. Lebanon is also expected to receive a second batch of A-29B Super Tucano light-attack aircraft next month.

“The ongoing military aids are an indication of the great confidence that the U.S military command has in the Lebanese Army, especially after the big role they played in fighting terrorism along the borders against the Islamic State,” a military expert told Defense News, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Aram Nerguizian, CEO of Washington-based consultancy The Mortons Group, said he expects “the U.S. government — and the [Department of Defense] in particular — will continue to seek more ways to deepen and broaden the U.S.-Lebanon bilateral military relationship.”

“The U.S. is also thinking of new ways to support the LAF’s [Lebanese Armed Forces’] updated 2018-2022 capabilities development plan — including how to facilitate its preference for a more robust deployment in the UNIFIL area of responsibility, potential solutions to strengthen and streamline LAF C4I, and the LAF’s need to bolster the readiness of its larger mechanized infantry brigades,” he added. using an acronym for a United Nations interim force in Lebanon..

For his part, retired Lebanese Brig. Gen. Maroun Hitti stressed the “excellent and very friendly partnership between the U.S. and Lebanese military, which will go on for a long time, more or less independently from the political alterations.”

What’s the fuss over Block 9?

In December, Lebanon approved a bid from a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two of the five blocks put up for tender in Lebanon’s much-delayed first oil and gas offshore licensing round, Reuters reported.

One of the awarded blocks, Block 9, borders Israeli waters.

Lebanon and Israel are caught up in a maritime border dispute over a triangular area of sea that makes up about 860 square kilometers (approximately 330 square miles) that extends along the edge of three of the blocks up for tender.

A map shows the offshore Block 9, center, which Israel claims. Lebanon's Energy Minister Cezar Abi Khalil has vowed the country will go ahead in its oil and gas exploration tender near its maritime border. (Hussein Malla/AP)
A map shows the offshore Block 9, center, which Israel claims. Lebanon's Energy Minister Cezar Abi Khalil has vowed the country will go ahead in its oil and gas exploration tender near its maritime border. (Hussein Malla/AP)

According to a local industry source, “the Lebanese-Israeli conflict has resurfaced once more because of the oil and gas field within the maritime borders between the two countries. There is a requirement to do proper demarcation of the waterlines, which will likely become a necessity.”

“However, until a proper demarcation is done that is accepted by both sides, this could prove to be a point of tension; and if Israel wants to intervene militarily, it will compel the Lebanese Army to act. Otherwise, this will open the door for Hezbollah to move defensively, which will reactivate the military conflict in south Lebanon,” the source added.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has warned that Lebanon would “pay the full price” for any new Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

The missile site concern

The situation became more complex when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of wanting “to turn Lebanon into one giant missile site.”

According to Ahmad Temsah, the CEO of the Center on Regional & Eastern Studies, the prime minister’s rhetoric complements Israeli pressure on European countries “to take stricter attitudes against the nuclear agreement signed with Iran and a warning to the NATO that Iranian ballistic missiles have [arrived] on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and can reach several European capitals.”

“It is also a veiled warning to Iran’s ally, [Russian] President Vladimir Putin, to intervene in order to press Tehran to prevent this because Israel regards it as a broad red line,” he noted. “Finally, it is a fearful warning to the Lebanese government, Hezbollah and the Lebanese people that this will lead to a full-scale war.”

On the other hand, the retired Lebanese military officer, Hitti, believes “neither Israel nor Lebanon will tolerate” an Iranian missile factory in Lebanon.

Credibility in a ‘destructive war‘

“Despite the recurring cycles of bellicose discourse on either side of the Blue Line [the Israel-Lebanon border], and despite recurring threats of a new summer war annually since 2006, the only certainty is that both Israel and Hezbollah ultimately seek to maintain ― and strengthen where possible ― their respective version of deterrence,” said Nerguizian.

The Lebanese Armed Forces took no major part in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

If the Lebanese see Israel as initiating an attack, the Lebanese Armed Forces would have to choose between sending troops into battle, or maintaining its "hard-won, post-ISIS credibility," the CEO of The Mortons Group said. "It is my understanding that in principle, losing their credibility is seen as far more costly for the LAF than to appear to do nothing while Hezbollah takes further credit and prominence in national security terms."

Hitti recommended communication between governments to avoid unnecessary conflict, adding that Lebanon should inform Hezbollah that action by the group would ”not necessarily be followed by a blind and immediate support from the Lebanese government.“

“Though the U.S. has been consistently assisting the LAF, this has not made the latter tempered enough to be able to confront the Israeli armed forces. But, in brief, there is a convergence of U.S. and Lebanese interests that are leading both governments to the strengthening of the LAF, which in turn is assisting in having a U.S.-friendly and stable Lebanon for the benefit of the regional and global security.”

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