BEIRUT: Gen. Jean Kahwagi wrapped up the first ever visit to Britain by a Lebanese Army Commander Tuesday, underlining the expanding military ties between the two countries. Kahwagi’s visit to London comes as the Lebanese Army faces an array of security challenges given repeated factional fighting in Tripoli, the recent spate of kidnappings and mounting tensions along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria.
Kahwagi met with senior British military and civilian officials including General Sir David Richards, the British army’s chief of staff, as well as officials in the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Office and the National Security Council.
“This is the first official visit for a Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces to the United Kingdom, and is a signal of the increasing strength of the U.K.’s defense relationship with Lebanon,” a statement from the British Embassy said.
British government officials informed Kahwagi on the ways that London is expanding its assistance to the Army and called on the international community to do all it can to help the military limit the risk of instability in Syria undermining Lebanese security.
Kahwagi toured a number of training facilities Tuesday, the second day of his trip, including the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and the Salisbury Plain training area in southern England where he watched Lebanese officers undergoing the Urban Operations International Instructors Course.
Since 2006, Britain has significantly stepped up its military and security assistance to Lebanon as part of a more general commitment by the international community to enhance the capabilities of the Lebanese Army and security forces. The U.K. has spent approximately $5.7 million since 2006 in security assistance, according to diplomatic sources.
In particular, the British have been active in training Lebanese troops at the newly restored air base at Hamat near Chekka. The Hamat air base is home to a U.K.-funded Internal Security center which includes a live-fire shooting house, a building complex for urban warfare training and a mock-up of a typical Palestinian refugee camp, an outcome of the three-month battle in 2007 between the Army and Fatah al-Islam in the Nahar al-Bared camp.
British Royal Marine Commandos conduct training of the Army’s regular forces at Hamat. Additionally, several Lebanese officers are sent to the U.K. each year for training, some to the Royal Military Academy and others attend the Royal Marine Commando course in Lympstone in southwest England.
Earlier this year, the British government announced that it intended to double its training programs to the Lebanese Army. The diplomatic sources said that estimated expenditure would amount to between $2.4 million to $3.2 million, which will include expanded training courses in the U.K. and at Hamat. Furthermore, the expanded assistance is expected to include lethal and non-lethal equipment.
Diplomatic sources say the Lebanese Army has improved in capabilities over the past three years, particularly the special forces units – the Rangers, the Airborne Regiment, the Naval Commandos – which receive training from U.S. Green Berets, part of the U.S. Special Operations Force.
The sources added that in the next three years, the Lebanese Army will be “reconstituted” with new and more effective equipment and weapons.
The heightened international interest in the Lebanese Army comes amid a growing risk of violence in Syria spilling across the border.
Lebanese troops manning a position near Arsal in the northeast Bekaa came under attack Saturday from suspected Syrian rebels. There were no reported casualties, although the Army said in a statement that it was the second time suspected Free Syrian Army fighters had infiltrated Lebanon from the remote and rugged Arsal region.
The Army faces a struggle to keep the northern area immune from the conflict being waged across the border.
Arsal and the Akkar district of north Lebanon are predominantly Sunni-populated areas where sympathy for the Syrian rebels runs deep.
Akkar, in particular, has been subjected to near nightly Syrian artillery bombardments since May. The purpose of the artillery fire is an attempt to interdict Syrian rebels moving to and fro across the Kabir river, which marks the border, and to punish Lebanese who provide sanctuary for FSA elements.
Former Minister Wi’am Wahhab told MTV television Monday that the Army should pursue and arrest any FSA fighters operating in Lebanon.
The Syrian army, he warned, “will enter Lebanese territory and may shell positions because there are reports saying there are 9,000 men opposed to the Syrian regime in Lebanon.”
However, searching houses and arresting Syrian rebels risks further antagonizing the local Sunni community, especially as feelings are still raw from the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed in May at an Army checkpoint near Halba.
However, diplomatic sources said that a new initiative is to be taken in the coming weeks that should allow the Army to more securely dominate the ground along a stretch of the border in northern Akkar that is regularly targeted by Syrian artillery.