Border battles: The Lebanese army and the fight against jihadists

Published September 3rd, 2014 - 07:50 GMT

The Lebanese army is facing a threat unlike any it has come up against since Lebanon’s independence: jihadist groups – not just one but two – seeking to penetrate the country and establish a base in the badlands near the porous border. As a result of a Syrian government-Hezbollah offensive to secure the mountainous Qalamoun region just east of Lebanon, ISIS and the Nusra Front have been pushed into the Bekaa Valley’s peripheries, leading to a rapid deterioration in security.

The most recent consequence of this was last month’s five-day battle for Arsal. The Lebanese army may have eventually retaken the isolated border town, but it did so at great cost – 19 soldiers dead and between 11 and 20 captured – highlighting how under-equipped the military is.

Although military analysts and former generals who spoke to The Daily Star roundly praised the army’s personnel as being well-trained, united and in good shape, all identified equipment and specialized border and counterterrorism training as a major gap.

The no. 1 priority they all identified was building a proper air force.

Arsal showed that the army “needs to be able to gather more intelligence and conduct more guided attacks,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“That means more investment in secure ground-to-ground and ground-to-air communications, and it also means building up the air force, which has atrophied since the Civil War ... and hasn’t broken through the 2,000 barrier in terms of manpower.”

At the moment, the Lebanese army has a fleet of four ancient British-made Hawker Hunters jets – all grounded, two American-made Cessna Caravans and three Bulldog training planes. Only one of the Cessnas is usable in combat, having been fitted to fire Hellfire air-to-ground missiles.

Some have called for fighter jets, but Hisham Jaber, a former general who taught terrorism and unconventional warfare in the army during the ’90s, said such aircraft would be useless, as Lebanon is so tiny.

“Russia proposed to give MiG-29s to Lebanon two to three years ago,” Jaber said. “I said we don’t need it, because it will be over Syria or Israel or the sea within seconds and will either be shot down or be useless. So I proposed that they change it to helicopters.”

If former Prime Minister Saad Hariri gets his way, those helicopters will soon become a reality, thanks to a new effort to revive a 2010 arms grant from Moscow.

The deal, if it goes ahead, will give Lebanon six choppers, 77 tanks, 1 million bullets and 37,000 shells of various calibers.

Whether the helicopters would be suitable for armed combat is unclear, but if they were, they would supplement the current fleet, which heavily relies on 29 U.S.-made Bell UH-1s (known as Hueys) and slightly modified Bell Huey IIs. Although some have been adjusted to be able to carry bombs, these helicopters are built for medical evacuations and general utility use, not for modern missiles. The UH-1s have not been produced since the ’80s, and are very outdated.

Lebanon also possesses eight French-made Gazelle helicopters with anti-tank capabilities, but these have their limitations, as was demonstrated in Arsal, when a pilot was wounded by ground gunfire from Islamists militants.

The fact that Lebanon’s current active air force is almost entirely manufactured in America is no coincidence. The United States is one of the Army’s biggest donors and, according to the White House, its support comprises approximately 75 percent of all international security assistance to Lebanon.

But with those ties come restrictions, the biggest of which come from Israel.

“The Americans are facing a certain pressure from Israel not to provide heavy weaponry because it could be used against them, and this has been an American consideration for many years,” explained Nizar Abdul-Qader, another retired Lebanese Army general and a political analyst.

This policy has become especially apparent in the last year or so. A recent U.S. military donation, costing more than $8 million, only included what is classified as light weaponry: M16 guns, shoulder-mounted anti-tank missile launchers and mortar shells. And a Saudi Arabian grant for $3 billion worth of French arms has been very slow to materialize since it was announced last December, which may also be down to Israel.

“Yes, we have the Saudi grant,” said Elias Farhat, a former Army general, “but I don’t think France will be able to equip us with proper weapons because the U.S. Congress is pressuring them not to.”

But CSIS’ Nerguizian said there was already talk of the U.S. allowing Lebanon to purchase an aircraft for itself.

“The [Brazilian-made] Super Tucano is maneuverable and designed to fire Hellfire missiles, but can also do things that the Gazelles can do, such as close support and firing guns,” Nerguizian said. “Yet it’s not a combat aircraft that would threaten any of the region’s air forces, so even if Israel would make a little noise I don’t think the U.S. would take any notice.”

But while it is Lebanon’s defunct air force that is the most obvious problem, replacing its collection of rusty Russian-made tanks – T54s and T55s given by the Syrians in the ’90s – is also a priority, something the further $1 million of military aid from Saudi Arabia, announced last month, may go toward.

“I believe the army needs at least a couple of hundred new tanks in reality to back all these units and provide direct long fire – which is very much needed in fighting terrorists trying to penetrate the border – or to support the infantry units,” Abdul-Qader said.

“It also really needs some special training for some of the units in surveillance and counterterrorism ... Especially the units working on the border,” he added.

Reducing the penetrability of its frontiers with Syria, parts of which have been practically nonexistent for many decades, may well be the most achievable short-term way of helping the Lebanese army and helping it prevent repeats of Arsal-style clashes.

“Building up surveillance along the border is an important part of security,” said Alex Corbeil, a senior research analyst at the NATO Council of Canada, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa.

“There needs to be a presence along the border, which hasn’t been there since the Civil War. Lebanon is playing catch-up; it really should be able to secure its own borders.”

By Venetia Rainey

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