Beirut, Lebanon: According to the UNHCR, Lebanon has absorbed at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) have increased counter terrorism operations in partnership with the US military and the CIA.
The US government recently announced a new $150 million (Dh550.5 million) package to be delivered to the LAF in addition to 560 artillery rounds and 50 Hellfire missiles. The US strategy has taken a turn since Washington announced it would refrain from training more “moderate” rebels in Syria.
Gulf News sat down with US sources who gave insights into America’s intention of providing increased funding to the Lebanese saying this was part of the strategy to step up the war on terrorism.
While the US claims its decision to stop the training of Syrian rebels is not related to its increased funding of the Lebanese, it did say it often coordinates with partner states, such as France or Saudi Arabia —who also provide support — to create packages conducive to fighting extremists in Lebanon.
One of the largest areas attracting Syrian refugees and often breeding fighters is along the eastern, mountainous, border village of Arsal.
US sources said that by giving the Lebanese Hellfire missiles, which are precision weapons, they are “helping them control the area around Arsal, because with a Hellfire you can take out a vehicle without threatening the civilians around it or you could take out a house suspected or known to be [holding] militants without killing people in the camp”.
The spokesman for the LAF, Brigadier General Ali Kanso, told Gulf News the army absorbs whatever assistance it can get from the US weapons support. “The army fights terrorists, we have a big mission ... in the north, in the south, and we are fighting in Arsal. Our aim is to have arms and technology.”
But David Schenker, the director of the Programme on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute in Washington D.C. told Gulf News: “Lebanon has an issue — a Syrian population that’s going to be an economic underclass and vulnerable to Sunni radicalisation.”
Kanso stated the army checks areas populated by Syrians and has intelligence reports on those who are suspected of terrorist activities. Thus far, he believes, the army has been successful in eradicating extremist activity.
In addition to weapons, the US has also allocated funds for training purposes, with a budget of $2.7 million to send 300 non-commissioned Lebanese officers to the United States for specialised training, which includes being schooled with Americans. The US defence department said: “It not only inculcates the American way of life [but also] shows them our values first hand.”
It schools the Lebanese military in the law of armed conflict, which is part of every training programme with allied countries.
The US sources indicated they are not interested in putting boots on the ground in Syria, but on Friday US President Barack Obama said US would send in special forces in an "advise and assist" role against Daesh. Instead they are pouring their resources into the Lebanese army’s fight. “They have the 6th largest US grant budget on earth for a country with just over four million [people] as of this year.” (The top five recipients of US military aid are Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Iraq).
From the US perspective, the Lebanese civilian population is united in its support for the army and is against Daesh. One of the main objectives in Lebanon is “creating a Lebanese army that is perceived by the Lebanese people as the sole legitimate defender of the country,” broadly due to the fact that the “political institutions are paralysed”.
Kanso echoed the sentiment that the LAF are successfully defending the country. “We have made a decision to kill or arrest — to finish the terrorists. They can’t come into Lebanon. The people of Lebanon, all of them, trust the army. The [political] parties need the Lebanese army, no one has told us to stop fighting.”
The US believes the LAF will be able to maintain a “tradition of staying out of the political system” and Washington does not fear the Lebanese Army will try to take over the country.
But one growing political and military influence is that of Hezbollah. Local media reported in June that the group was keen on keeping Syrian militants from penetrating Lebanon beyond Arsal.
Kanso denied any collaboration with Hezbollah claiming the LAF is the only one defending Lebanon’s borders.
However, a source that understands the inner-workings of Hezbollah told Gulf News the group has cooperated and worked with the army to provide support, while also having fighters inside Syria, assisting the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
The US still considers Hezbollah a terrorist group and said it has a monitoring system in place to make certain its support for the LAF is not being shared with Hezbollah. While “American weapons and intelligence operations” could help the Lebanese Army prepare for extremist threats, Schenker pointed out that ultimately “you cannot isolate Lebanon from Syria. Radical Sunni militants are a threat to the security of Lebanon”.
Russia’s offensive in Syria, he said, could send more refugees to Lebanon’s border. He said there could be “increasing social problems and radicalisation and the Lebanese [Army] is going to be less effective, especially with the paralysis of government and growing sectarianism.” He added that Hezbollah’s role in Syria was also affecting relations between the sects in Lebanon.
Simultaneously, Palestinian refugee camps are alleged to be breeding grounds for radical militancy. The Lebanese army is not able to enter the camps
Nevertheless, Kanso said he was confident the LAF could nab any radical militant at the army’s check points, which are located outside the camps and he said, if the government told the army to go in, they would not hesitate.
As for the US, it is determined to support any effort the LAF makes to fight terrorism.
-Ash Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in Beirut