AWKAR, Lebanon: The U.S. will deliver six military aircraft to Lebanon as scheduled, even though they were initially set to be funded by a canceled Saudi grant, U.S. interim Ambassador Richard H. Jones said Tuesday.
He called for a “Lebanese solution” to the presidential crisis, urging Lebanese leaders to agree to end the deadlock, adding that Washington had no veto on any hopeful.
Jones also revealed that a number of Special U.S. Forces were training Lebanese Army Special Forces on Lebanese territory, and that his country was closely cooperating with various security agencies in Lebanon.
“That was already done,” Jones said of the aircraft deal. “[The] Saudis were supposed to pay us an additional amount of money to fund it, but when they canceled that, they kind of left us high and dry so to speak and we’re pursuing conversations with them about that,” Jones told The Daily Star in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Awkar.
“But it doesn’t mean that the deal isn’t going to go forward, because we already made the commitment. So those aircraft will be delivered on schedule in 2017.”
The diplomat was referring to six A-29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft, a sale approved by the U.S. State Department in June of last year with other military hardware and support equipment as part of a proposed $462 million arms deal.
A-29 Super Tucano planes are military jets specialized in light attacks, counterinsurgency, close air support and reconnaissance missions.
The deal was supposed to be funded by a $1 billion Saudi grant to the Lebanese security forces announced in August 2014, but last month Riyadh canceled the deal along with another $3 billion pledged to the Army over a diplomatic dispute. Jones said the Saudi decision “kind of caught everybody flat-footed.”
Jones said that $600 million of the $1 billion grant was supposed to fund U.S. weapons for the Army. “And we have already received some of that.”
“On the basis of that initial payment, we have gone ahead and made the contracts to purchase the so-called Super Tucanos,” Jones said, noting that pilot training will begin in a few months.
Commenting on other U.S. arms intended to be purchased by the grant, Jones said, “We’re still working, but we are looking at ways that we can help fill the gap.”
Jones said that over the past decade, the U.S. invested $ 1.4 billion in the Lebanese Army.
“This is a serious investment for us and we don’t want to see that investment go for naught ... because it’s part of a program to build up the strength of the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] and there’s still, you know, important gaps in the LAF armory of weapons.”
The envoy said that in the last seven years, his country had given the Internal Security Forces $160 million.
Jones added that an ongoing military funding program for Lebanon, which usually runs $75 million a year, was doubled to $150 million in 2015.
“I think it will be plussed up a little bit for 2016, but I don’t know how much yet.”
Jones said that later in the week, there would be a ceremony for a formal turn over to the Lebanese Army of three Huey II helicopters.
The U.S. has also trained 2,800 Lebanese officers in the last 10 years, Jones said.
He revealed that U.S. Special Forces were training the Lebanese Special Forces in 10 different locations across Lebanon.
The U.S. military assistance to the Army comes as it confronts security threats posed by Daesh (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, militant groups which operate on the northeastern border.
Jones said that threats from Daesh and the Nusra Front were real rather than “theoretical.”
“We share information as well, back and forth with the Lebanese security forces ... they basically inform us of threats and concerns they have and we do likewise.”
He said the U.S. worked closely with Army Intelligence, the ISF Information Branch and with General Security and State Security.
“We are very pleased with the Army’s performance. ... I get actually regular reports of the training that we’re doing here in the country, and you see clear progress in the reports on the capabilities of the forces that we’re working with.”
Jones said that U.S. military assistance also featured the provision of unmanned aerial vehicles for border surveillance, noting that $59 million had been allocated for border security.
Commenting on the presidential interregnum, Jones reiterated calls for Lebanese political factions to work on ending the crisis as quickly as possible.
“There are two candidates that have been, I don’t know, I can’t say formally nominated, but they’ve been nominated by their opponents, so that’s a pretty good nomination and we haven’t put a veto on any one of those, and we wouldn’t try to put a veto probably on any candidate,” Jones said.
Jones said it was time for a “Lebanese solution” to the presidential crisis and said he hoped that the recent realignments would help achieve a breakthrough. “Now what we need is [Former Prime Minister Saad] Hariri, [ MP Sleiman] Frangieh and [MP Michel] Aoun, [ Lebanese Forces Leader Samir] Geagea to get together. I think if you got all four of those together that you will [be pretty close to] something representing an unstoppable majority.
“I have been increasingly concerned about the corrosive effect that the lack of a president is having on Lebanese institutions. ... I am concerned about an erosion of the rule of law, I am concerned about the erosion of the institution of the presidency,” Jones said.
Jones said that U.S. officials have promised Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and a parliamentary delegation that paid separate visits to the U.S. in the recent weeks that the government would take into account the concerns of Lebanese when implementing a law to tighten financial sanctions on Hezbollah.
Last December, U.S. lawmakers unanimously passed the bill, and it was swiftly signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“What I understand in the meetings is that our people affirmed both to the parliamentarians and to the minister that this bill will be focused on Hezbollah. It won’t be focused on any group other than Hezbollah,” Jones said, adding that he believed the law “would make life a little more difficult for Hezbollah.”
Jones said that the U.S. had pledged $133 million in additional humanitarian aid for Lebanon at the Syria Donors Conference last month in London, along with a substantial increase in educational assistance.
Asked when his successor, Elizabeth Richard, would take office, Jones said she still had to undergo two confirmation votes, but that he hoped that she would be approved before the Senate recess in late May.