x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

MiGs raise stakes in Lebanon defence debate

An offer by Russia to supply Lebanon with 10 advanced fighter jets highlights the contradictions in the US policy towards the Lebanese military.

Beirut // An offer by Russia to supply Lebanon with 10 advanced fighter jets has roiled the region, highlighting the contradictions in the US policy of assisting the Lebanese military with a critical modernisation effort, while simultaneously protecting Israel's strategic advantage in weapons technology over its rival neighbours. In a visit with his Russian counterpart on Tuesday, Elias Murr, the Lebanese defence minister, announced that Russia had offered to provide Lebanon with as many as 10 MiG-29 fighter jets, while also reacting favourably to Lebanon's request for advanced military equipment, including modern tanks, missile systems and artillery.

The Lebanese military has been traditionally trained and equipped by the United States, which pursues a clear policy of only supplying light arms that do not alter any strategic balance in the region. In the past year or so, the United States has supplied the Lebanese military with about US$400 million (Dh1.5bn) worth of surplus equipment, mostly in light weapons, ammunition and unarmoured Humvees and lorries. The Lebanese government has complained that the aid, while useful, needs to be part of a broader modernisation programme to build a military capable of defending the tiny nation, which relied on Syria for protection prior to that country's withdrawal in 2005 after a 30-year occupation. The announcement by Mr Murr was met in Lebanon with a mixture of excitement and disbelief, as the price tag for the 10 jet fighters could exceed $300m, not including training more than 30 pilots, 100 support personnel and obtaining fuel, maintenance and modern radar systems needed to guide and operate the jets. Currently, Lebanon has only a handful of 1950s-era fighters and slightly younger helicopters as an air fleet. A high-ranking official in the Lebanese military, speaking on condition on anonymity because he does not have permission from the government to speak on the record, said it remains unclear if Lebanon would be expected to pay for the planes - which he considered impossible in light of the other costs associated with developing an actual air force. "We are ready to send officers to train in Russia on how to operate the fighters technically, and logistically," the official said. "At the end it's up to the government to make a decision, because this level of arming has political and financial implications, even if Russia offered Lebanon special prices." Most military analysts agreed that the American approach of building a professional Lebanese military capable of handling counter-terrorism and insurgencies is far more critical to its stability than obtaining modern weapons most likely intended to face Israel. But the Hizbollah-led opposition has repeatedly called for closer links to Iran and Russia, two countries likely to offer Lebanon more modern heavy weapons. While the Americans have publicly stressed the need to modernise the Lebanese Army as a way to neutralise the need for Hizbollah's effective military force along the southern border, it also has expressed concerns that modern weapons might fall into the militant Shiite group's hands for use against Israel. Even Hizbollah's opponents in Lebanon dismiss this worry in light of the group already being far better trained, armed and effective than the Lebanese military. A Lebanese Army spokesman said the equipment supplied by the US is closely controlled and there has never been an incident of such weaponry found in the possession of Hizbollah, a claim confirmed by American officials even as they express deep scepticism about Russia and Iran trying to equip Lebanon with better weaponry. "The Resistance wouldn't want our weapons even if we modernised," the army official said on background. "They have better equipment. And they are a guerrilla force. What would they want or need with tanks or jet aircraft?" In response to American and Israeli misgivings about the proposed sale, leasing or donation of the fighter jets, Lebanese officials briefed reporters in Moscow, arguing that modernising the army will pressure Hizbollah - who frequently argues that the weak army requires them to protect the nation - to disarm or allow its forces to be absorbed into the military chain of command. An anonymous government minister told a local Beirut newspaper yesterday that he doubted the deal could go through because of both the financial and regional politics involved. "The financial and political situation of the state doesn't allow us to establish such a deal," he said in Al Akbar, a newspaper sympathetic to Hizbollah. "The subject needs negotiations to go beyond the financial means but also to think how Lebanon should protect and maintain these weapons. Especially when Israel won't be flexible about it, and will launch a diplomatic campaign to stop the deal, which might be followed by military action, because Israel considers arming the Lebanese army a threat and danger for the security of the state of Israel." Less than a dozen modern fighters do not seem to concern Israel, despite their deep protests against the sale. Of much more pressing concern appears to be Russia's offer of modern T-90 tanks, guided rocket and missile systems and heavy artillery that could hit Israeli targets. The Americans are offering an upgrade of the Lebanese armoured forces, but plan to supply M-60 tanks, which are about 30 years older than the tanks apparently offered by the Russians. Lebanese officials have also approached Germany in recent weeks for information on purchasing heavy armour. But after more than four decades of watching Israel completely control the airspace around the region, including often daily or weekly flights over Lebanon that terrify and infuriate the population, Hizbollah supporters saw the issue as emotional more than anything else.

"I'm happy to know that we are going to have 10 jets and I'm happy they are coming from Russia, because they are better than the Americans, and the resistance as everyone knows has Russian guns and proved in 2006 that they are better than the American ones," said Hassan, a 38-year-old barber in the Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs. "Now as Lebanese, we start feeling safer with the army well armed alongside the resistance. We will defeat Israel again, and now we have jets so we can fly and bomb them." And as he spoke, a customer in his shop chanted a mantra first issued by Hizbollah secretary general, Sayid Hasan Nasrallah: "The time of victories is upon us!" Facing elections planned for the spring, even if the deal makes little military or financial sense, the pro-American government might be forced to accept the planes for electioneering reasons alone, for it faces a newly emboldened Hizbollah-led opposition, which hopes - and expects - to take power after the polls. mprothero@thenational.ae