Beirut was once known as the French Riviera of the Eastern Mediterranean until the PLO of Yasser Arafat left Jordan and took up residence in Lebanon. Until then predominately Christian Lebanon and Israel enjoyed amicable relations. The rest of the story is history including Israel’s two Lebanon Wars and many military excursions. These wars and excursions have not been against the Lebanese government or its population but against the foreign elements that reside and operate there. These have repeatedly attacked Israel and have sought her destruction. First the PLO and then Hezbollah have used Lebanese territory as a springboard to attack Israel. Syria and more recently Iran have not been without guilt in intervening in Lebanon to destabilise the Lebanese government and support anti-Israeli forces. The bottom line is that Lebanon although an independent state has not been capable of preventing foreign forces and foreign intervention. But times are changing.
After a year in which dozens of soldiers have been killed across Lebanon, and when the country teeters on the brink of chaos, this week’s $3 billion grant to the Army from Saudi Arabia could not have come at a better time. While Saudi Arabia, and other countries, both in the Gulf and the West, have provided assistance to the Lebanese Army before, this is the biggest ever single aid package. And it arrives at such a critical juncture for the country, when it is facing threats from each of its borders, and battling internal divisions and violence as well.
But amid all these crises, it sends a signal that Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s de facto leaders, has faith in Lebanon, and in particular its army and its ability to persevere and stabilize the country, insulating itself from regional turmoil. The Army is symbolically the strongest institution in the country; to most Lebanese it represents unity, and remains to a large extent neutral in the face of internal political or sectarian divisions. It has managed, against all odds, to transcend the dangerous habit of affiliation which has plagued most other institutions in the country, often while sacrificing its own members, as has been evidenced this year, with losses during battles in Sidon, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.
But while it is symbolically strong, and holds this special place in the national psyche, it is physically weak: chronically underfunded and its soldiers and resources overstretched. Forced to patrol every border (Israel, Syria and Turkey), it also finds itself filling in where other security agencies are failing, often acting as policeman, negotiator and emergencies director as well as soldier.
So this grant which equals the military assistance given to Israel from the United States each year will be crucial in helping the Army fill in some worrying gaps, and it is a commendable signal from the kingdom. But still, certain voices in the Lebanese political spectrum have found it necessary to criticize the move, the same voices who have always accused Saudi Arabia of meddling in Lebanon’s domestic affairs.
Saudi Arabia has always been a friend to Lebanon when it has been in need, propping up its currency when it was in jeopardy, and helping it patch itself up after the Civil War and Israel’s Second Lebanon War in 2006. It has consistently stood by Lebanon, and this latest grant, while hugely welcomed, should therefore not come as a massive surprise. The condition that the money must be spent on French arms is undoubtedly intended as a message to the United States that the kingdom has new friends, but ultimately the move will benefit Lebanon.
All that can be hoped now is the Lebanese Army is able to use the money most effectively as possible, and not let the equipment be affected by traditional Lebanese bureaucracy and corruption. For Israel the deal means a blow to Hezbollah’s weapon dominance and status in both Lebanon and Syria. For Israel the deal means that Saudi Arabia has become a major actor not only in the Syrian civil-war but also in Israel’s security matrix against terrorist organisations.
If Lebanon uses the weapons prudently the security matrix on Israel’s northern border will change. Hezbollah will be weakened or expelled, rocket attacks on Israel’s north from Lebanon will cease, and Southern Syria will potentially be subjugated to Lebanese influence. Maybe Israel should commence negotiations with the Beirut government. Lebanon is Israel’s only neighbour with whom there is no dispute over territory. Yet there is the important question of Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon and their rights including residence in any future Palestinian state.
Dr. Glen Segell, FRGS, is Research Fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Editor of the London Security Policy Study and Research Director of Securitatem Vigalate