BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army has asked the United States for military aid that includes new fixed-wing airplanes to use as close air support while battling extremist militants encamped in the mountains outside Arsal, an official briefed on the request told The Daily Star.
The aid request also includes replenishing the Army’s ammunition, a lot of which was expended in the five-day clashes earlier this month with fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front for control over the embattled town on the border with Syria, the official said, as well as upgrading the existing fleet of planes.
The money for the aircraft, which would be the most expensive purchase by the Army in the post-Arsal modernization effort, will likely come from the $1 billion Saudi grant entrusted to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the official said.
The ammunition is likely to arrive in the coming weeks but the airplane deal will take longer to materialize.
“The American weapons, just as the case will be in Iraq, will be essential for weakening jihadists’ offensive capabilities,” said Hasan Hasan, an analyst at Delma Institute and columnist who has written extensively about the Syrian rebellion.
The Lebanese Army fought a pitched, five-day battle with militants which began when they stormed military checkpoints around Arsal on Aug. 2. Nineteen soldiers and dozens of militants were killed in the clashes, according to the official count.
The militants withdrew after a cease-fire deal to the outskirts of the town, which has long been a bastion of support for the Syrian uprising, and to the inaccessible, mountainous border, with hostages from the Army and the ISF in tow.
Last week, Ambassador David Hale said the U.S. would expedite military assistance to Lebanon in the coming months to help it seal the border and fight extremists.
Hale had said the coming deliveries, made in response to a request from Lebanon for emergency assistance, would include munitions and ordnance, of a defensive and offensive nature.
The shift toward the Americans comes amid mounting frustration over France’s slow delivery of $3 billion worth of military gear intended for Lebanon that was paid for by Saudi Arabia and announced last year amid growing instability linked to the war in Syria.
At the time, President Michel Sleiman announced the deal to bolster the armed forces, seen as one of the last bastions of national unity in a country divided over the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah’s intervention there.
But Lebanon has seen little of that promised aid.
Last week, Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Asiri said that the new mechanism for its latest grant, which is directly under Hariri’s control, was created to circumvent what he described as bureaucracy.
The Lebanese Air Force has very little capacity to provide close air support to its ground troops as they fight enemies like guerrilla militants in close proximity – the Army has just one Cessna Caravan 208B, a fixed-wing plane fitted with Hellfire missiles to attack ground troops, which was provided in 2009.
The modified plane was used by the Iraqi government in battles against insurgents in the country.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said acquiring new close air support planes “could well be of strategic value to the Lebanese military in its campaign against jihadist militants.”
“The primary value for Lebanon of close-air support capabilities would be to target militants crossing between Syria and Lebanon across mostly rugged mountainous terrain,” he said.
But he said it must be paired with better reconnaissance, targeting and the ability to share battlefield intel.
Lister also said the Lebanese Army conducts many operations against jihadist militants in urban environments, where close air support is less useful since it can cause high civilian casualties.
Lebanon is constrained in the technologies it can acquire from the U.S. as Israel has an effective veto over weapon acquisitions.
The decision to acquire American weapons also comes as the U.S. grows increasingly involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, where it is conducting airstrikes against militant targets and moved in recent days to directly provide arms to the Kurdish peshmerga.
“It does appear that under Obama’s leadership, the U.S. administration is adopting a strategy of minimizing direct intervention, but showing a clear willingness to provide the necessary military capabilities to governments who prove their worth,” Lister said. “The provision of additional equipment to the Lebanese military would fit that strategy well.”
From the American perspective, bolstering the Army is aimed at defining it as the prime institution that can defend Lebanon’s border, without the need for Hezbollah.
But there is also alarm at the power of militant groups on the border, with the Arsal offensive taking many observers by surprise.
“A key part of the American strategy in this part of the region is to focus on consensus in politics, but they are willing to move fairly quickly in extreme cases to cauterize the bleeding in border areas to halt the spillover,” Hassan said.
The Nusra Front had long worked to increase its presence in the mountainous Qalamoun region due to its proximity both to Damascus and to the Lebanese border, and because the mountains and valleys can serve as a launching pad for attacks in Damascus and Lebanon. The rugged terrain on the border allows it to be used as secure hideouts, Hasan said, limiting the ability of the Syrian air force in conducting surveillance and strikes in the area.
But Hasan said that a broader strategy is needed in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in order to combat the militants. Isolated airstrikes and stop-gap measures alone will not work.
“Of course, this strategy is not sustainable if it is based on fighting jihadists in one country and not in another,” he said. “A broader military and political approach is needed in all of these three countries at the same time to begin encouraging a bottom-up pushback against jihadists.”