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Saudi Arabia promises record $3 billion in military aid to Lebanon

Saudi Arabia is flexing its muscles in Lebanon, where the army is overshadowed by the powerful militant group Hezbollah, a key ally of Saudi rival Iran.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay for a Lebanese army purchase of $3 billion worth of French weapons systems and equipment, the largest aid package ever provided to the tiny Mediterranean country.

The deal, which has been elicited mixed reactions by rival Lebanese factions, is being analyzed through the prism of Saudi interests in Lebanon and Syria. One Saudi goal is to blunt the political and military power of the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival. Hezbollah, not the Lebanese army, is the most powerful military force in the country.

The Saudi leadership recently voiced frustration at what it says is the failure of the US and the West to provide sufficient support to Syrian rebel forces seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster and has vowed to adopt a more assertive policy against the Assad regime.

The grant, which was announced Sunday night by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, could provide a significant boost to the cash-strapped and poorly equipped Lebanese army at a time of mounting security threats across the country. The 2013 budget for the Lebanese army was $1.2 billion, according to the Britain-based Jane’s Information Group.

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But there’s no guarantee that the money will be spent wisely, if it shows up at all. And it may come with major political strings attached.

“If this is being done to bolster regional security, which is one of the incentives for countries like the US to support Lebanon, then it’s a step in the right direction,” says Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But if it is being done as a means to confront Hezbollah, or change the internal balance of power, then the effort might be somewhat misguided.”

Best defense?

Hezbollah argues that it must retain its formidable military assets because its blend of guerrilla warfare skills and advanced weaponry provides the best means of defending Lebanon against a possible future Israeli attack, particularly given the inherent weakness of the Lebanese army as a conventional force against the Israeli army.

Hezbollah’s domestic critics say that only the Lebanese state has the right to decide on matters of war and peace and that the Lebanese army should be the only sanctioned military force in the country. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war to help defend the Assad regime against opposition rebels undermines the party’s case that its arms are intended solely to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggression, critics maintain.

Mr. Suleiman announced the Saudi aid package in a televised speech, saying that Riyadh’s “generous assistance” would help the Lebanese army “strengthen its capabilities.” He added that another $1.6 billion could be forthcoming next year at an international meeting in Italy in support of the Lebanese army.

The massive Saudi donation to the Lebanese army is seen as an attempt by the kingdom to muscle into an area where the US has played a lead role in the past six years. The decision to restrict the $3 billion to the purchase of French military hardware also could be a snub to Washington, which has provided around $850 million of military assistance to the Lebanese army since 2007.

French President Francois Hollande was in Riyadh on Sunday when the deal was announced and said his country would meet any request made by Lebanon. The deal should be a significant boost to France‘s military industry. 

Saudi Arabia’s promised military aid has been warmly welcomed by Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents in the Western and Saudi-backed March 14 parliamentary coalition, which opposes Syrian intervention in Lebanon. 

“The Baabda Declaration and now the Saudi-French-Lebanese deal will put an end to Hezbollah’s weapons domination in both Lebanon and Syria,” said Marwan Hamadeh, a top March 14 official, in a statement. The Baabda Declaration was an agreement that all parties in Lebanon would abide by a policy of neutrality in the Syria conflict. The declaration has been breached not only by Hezbollah but by Lebanese Sunni groups and individuals who have joined Syrian rebel groups or provided logistical assistance from inside Lebanon.

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Hezbollah unease

The daily Al-Akbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, questioned the timing and motive of the Saudi aid.

“Have France and Saudi Arabia taken the decision to flare up the situation in Lebanon and destroy what remained of its institutions and constitution?” the newspaper asked in an editorial.

The Lebanese army is widely regarded in Lebanon as a bastion of national unity and criticism of it verges on the taboo. Hezbollah has a complex relationship with the Lebanese army, with both institutions careful not to cross the other’s red lines. Even if the Lebanese army was to grow stronger with foreign aid, it is inconceivable that it would be ordered to physically disarm Hezbollah – such an action could trigger a possible civil war, analysts say.

On the other hand, the idea of boosting the military capabilities of the Lebanese army makes neighboring Israel uneasy as it fears that weapons systems destined for the army could either fall into the hands of Hezbollah or be used against Israel itself.

Since 2007, the US has significantly stepped up its foreign military assistance program to Lebanon, accounting for about 70 percent of all international military aid to the tiny Mediterranean country. Most of the assistance is in the form of training, communications, ammunition and transport rather than lethal weapons systems.

Earlier this year, the Lebanese army drew up a five-year capabilities development plan intended to address its needs in light of commitments to national defense and a deteriorating regional security environment. Prior to the Saudi announcement, the plan had an initial budget of $1.6 billion to cover the period between 2013 and 2017 and a further unbudgeted figure of $2.6 billion for future needs. The potential difficulty facing the Lebanese army is how to integrate this new $3 billion Saudi windfall with the existing plan, especially as the Saudi aid comes with the condition that the equipment must be purchased from France. 

“For all the limits of the US foreign military financing system there is a fundamental reality that over the past six years US systems have been the path of choice for the LAF, be it now or over the coming two decades,” say Mr. Nerguizian, a top expert on the Lebanese army. “The question now is what components of the capabilities development plan can the French accommodate or play a positive role in addressing.”