Lebanon’s president could barely contain his joy. Speaking only a few days after Christmas, Michel Sleiman announced a late present to the Lebanese in a year that had brought little to celebrate. Speaking live on the major television networks Sleiman announced that Saudi Arabia had agreed to invest in the Lebanese army to the tune of $3 billion, a grant that he said would enable the military to “strengthen its capabilities” and “confront terrorists.” Coming only two days after the killing of a pro-Saudi former minister, the president’s message seemed fairly pointed.
The grant could undoubtedly have a major effect on the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). $3 billion, spread over five years, would be a major boost to Lebanon’s defense budget, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2012 estimated at $1.7 billion annually. If invested wisely, the fighting capacity of the military could greatly improve, as could its ability to control its borders.
The investment is certainly needed. Currently, despite having over 60,000 soldiers, the LAF has only a token air force, relies heavily on Russian-made tanks from the 1960s and has a minimal navy. New hardware could enable the LAF to carry out its duties far more efficiently. Elias Ferhat, a former Lebanese general, cites the case of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in 2007 — when the Lebanese army took three and a half months to crush an insurgency led by Islamist groups. “Had the Lebanese had any fixed wings [planes or drones] it could have ended it in 15 days or fewer,” he said.
Yet those expecting this to be a game-changing moment which will allow the Lebanese army to justify disarming Hezbollah and even provide a military counterweight to Israel may be disappointed. Closer inspection of the deal indicates that while the benefits may be significant for the army’s capacity to control security internally, it is doubtful whether it will have a major effect on relations with Israel or Hezbollah.
Part of the reason the deal’s impact is unclear is that while the proclamations were bold, the details remain murky. As this magazine went to print, there had been no official confirmation of the $3 billion from either the Lebanese government, the Ministry of Defense or the LAF. Beyond the president’s statement, there are as yet no further details of where the money will go. “All we have so far is the declaration from the Saudi government and an acceptance from the Lebanese president,” said Farhat, cautioning that Saudi has a long history of promising money, “but when it comes to execution they do nothing. So it is too early to know how big [the effect will be].”
In fact, closer inspection of the deal suggests that it may have more to do with relations between Saudi Arabia and France than a sudden desire to support Lebanon’s military. At a regional level, as the United States has moved closer to rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia — for many years America’s closest Arab ally — has appeared increasingly snubbed. In November, Riyadh surprised the world by turning down a seat on the United Nations Security Council after months of lobbying for it, a U-turn widely interpreted as a message to the US.
As relations with Washington have soured, leaders in Riyadh have been looking for new allies, with the French appearing to be the favored choice. They may well be voting with their wallets, with the two countries believed to be on the cusp of confirming a $1.4 billion deal to overhaul the Saudi navy — specifically the French-built F-2000 frigates.
The deal struck between Riyadh and Beirut is in fact a triangular one. Lebanon will not be allowed to invest the $3 billion however it sees fit, but will have to buy French goods and get training from France. This, said Aram Nerguizian — a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on the LAF — indicates that the deal is as much about Paris as Beirut. “The deal benefits the French [weapons] industry first and foremost. No funding will be transferred directly to Lebanon and the mechanisms by which orders, payments and deliveries will play out are likely to be triangular and complicated by domestic constraints and pressures in all three countries concerned. Minimizing these pressures is incumbent upon effective trilateral engagement, not unlike recent LAF meetings in Paris and Riyadh.”
Indeed Nerguizian believes the Lebanese Armed Forces had only partial awareness of the deal before it was announced. “The LAF was consulted by the Lebanese president on its military development objectives and the Capabilities Development Plan, but they were not aware of any plan by Saudi Arabia to finance the sale of French systems, sustainment and training to the Lebanese,” he said.
What to buy
The debate around what the military should buy, therefore, is somewhat muddied as it is not yet clear by what mechanism the weapons will be selected. Will the LAF be able to prioritize areas where it feels it needs development or will the French dictate what they wish to sell?
Even if the LAF is in control, there are likely to be internal disputes over where the money should be allocated. Nerguizian points out that French naval expertise are among the world’s best and that Lebanon should seek to benefit from this. “This is not only a focus on acquiring ships. It is a bottom up effort to reshape an atrophied force of some 2,400 into a proper navy able to conduct patrol and interdiction in Lebanese territorial and economic waters. This would include dry docks, floating dry dock, ship-to-shore communications and other systems to supplement the sale of ship systems able to operate in difficult weather conditions.” Former general Ferhat, however, thinks the navy is less of a priority. “We need an air force because we don’t have a real one in Lebanon. We need also main battle tanks as our tanks are Syrian Russian-made tanks from the 60s,” he said. “These should be our priorities.”
Another potential tension may be over the percentage of the money spent on new goods. The Oxford Companion to American Military History points out that on average the cost of maintaining hardware over its lifetime is more than the initial cost of buying it.
It is as yet unclear what percentage of the $3 billion will be spent on new items and what will be allocated to maintain them. To give French industry the most short-term benefit, the focus would be on new items, but this could leave the LAF unable to foot the bill. “The maintenance of these weapons will cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year and the Lebanese budget cannot afford this,” Ferhat said. “We have a choice — can we acquire these weapons and maintain them or will they stay in a hangar for 12-15 years and then sold to countries such as Pakistan as they can afford to maintain them?”
Nerguizian believes the Lebanese army will push for finances to be allocated towards long-term acquisition. “The LAF is not looking to acquire $3 billion-worth of systems it cannot sustain… The LAF is operating under the premise that, if the $3 billion does in fact materialize, at least part of it must and will focus on sustainment.”
The need for clarity
One final element stressed by much of the media in understanding this deal is Saudi Arabia’s desire to influence Lebanese politics by weakening Hezbollah, which is the closest regional ally of Riyadh’s rival Iran. But again, the effect may be more modest than some have predicted.
If the purpose of the grant was to develop the LAF so that Hezbollah would no longer need to be armed, then it appears more than $3 billion is needed. Adnan Mansour, the caretaker foreign minister who is close to Hezbollah, dismissed the donation as “not enough to bolster Lebanon’s defense system,” pointing to the $17 billion Israeli annual defense budget. The extent of Hezbollah’s financial support from Iran and other donors is not known, but the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimated it could be up to $200 million a year. Similarly the party has a huge network of voluntary donors, who pledge support to the party. While their total budget is significantly less than the LAF’s budget, Hezbollah has fewer responsibilities — with ‘resistance’ to Israel still its top priority. In this the party’s expert use of guerilla warfare has made it more capable of challenging Israeli aggression than traditional Middle Eastern militaries. “The Army is currently not able to be strong without [Hezbollah] at its side,” Mansour added.
Nerguizian agrees that the triangular nature of the deal makes it unlikely to be a direct challenge to Hezbollah. “$3 billion to France which will then sell as yet uncertain aid to the LAF will not lead to an LAF-Hezbollah confrontation, nor will it lead to the kinds of government formation that will seek to exclude the Shi’a and Hezbollah.”
What remains are more questions than answers. While the money from Saudi could have a transformative effect on the capacity of Lebanon’s armed forces, whether it actually will or not is unclear. The sooner more details are released, the better.