Security

US military support for Lebanon critical: experts

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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The Lebanese army received from the US on March 28th a new batch of weapons, military equipment and ammunition. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese Army Command Directorate of Guidance]

US military assistance for the Lebanese armed forces has been key to ensuring their ability to maintain stability amid the turbulent political and economic climate in the country, military officials and experts said.

US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said support for the Lebanese army will continue, "because it is a trusted partner".

The Lebanese army is highly respected for being "professional and apolitical, and I think it can be said that Hizbullah is the opposite of that", she said in an interview with the LBCI network in April.

A source with the Army Command told Al-Mashareq the US support is "continuing, as evidenced by the fact that we received US weapons and ammunition in mid-April and we are receiving another batch next month".

US support for the army still represents 90% of the total military aid to Lebanon and this year has amounted to about $250 million for the ministries of defence, interior and foreign affairs, he said.

Joint exercises also are continuing, albeit at a slower pace due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he added.

The source described the relationship between the two sides as "based on mutual respect and professionalism".

The military's requests for aid "are often times very modest because the state and army cannot bear the cost of highly sophisticated weapons that we cannot maintain", he said.

The US government sees the army's role as "crucial to protecting Lebanon", he said, especially as the country has been grappling with recent nationwide protests that the army helped keep peaceful.

Most recently, the army also has been essential in helping enforce a lockdown due to the coronavirus.

US support "is why the army remains steadfast and ready, given that 90% of the army's budget goes to salaries", he said.

"If it were not for this support, how would the soldiers be trained and where would the weapons and ammunition come from?"

"US support gives us the ability to protect the unity of Lebanon and its people."

US assistance: a lifeline

Under the current financial crisis in Lebanon and the state's bankruptcy, US support is the only source of new military vehicles, ammunition and spare parts for the army, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis executive director Riyad Kahwaji said.

Other countries also support the Lebanese army, "but their support is meagre compared to that provided by the US", he told Al-Mashareq.

US assistance plays an "essential role in ensuring the continuity of the military and other security institutions, which are all experiencing a financial crisis", he added.

Kahwaji noted that US assistance is mainly logistical and directed toward the air force, which was revived by the modification of the UH-1H and Huey helicopters and supplying the army with Super Tucano attack aircraft.

Negotiations are underway to increase the number of aircraft following the signing of an agreement to acquire MD 530G attack helicopters starting next year, he said.

Kahwaji noted that before and during the Fajr al-Juroud (Al-Juroud Dawn) battle that ousted the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) from Arsal, Lebanon was supplied with cannons, UAVs and Cessna aircraft that played a key role in defeating the group.

Additionally, discussions are under way "to strengthen and modernise the capabilities of the naval forces to protect offshore drilling operations, and to enhance the army's intelligence capabilities in combating terrorism", he said.

Combating terrorism

The US military assistance to the Lebanese army, including training, ammunition and maintenance, "amounts to $75 million per year", political and strategic affairs researcher ret. Brig. Gen. Khalil Al-Helou told Al-Mashareq.

The support that was provided helped the army succeed in its fight against terrorism, he said.

The US views the continued support for the army as a win-win for both sides because the Lebanese army's culture is not supportive of Hizbullah, he added.

US support has exceeded $2.5 billion from 2008 to date, he said.

Al-Helou said the trust in the army that Ambassador Shea spoke of "is also echoed by foreign diplomats, and it is the result of the army's success in combating terrorism and its civilised handling of the demonstrations".

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