Saudi Arabia has established a new pipeline linking the Lebanese military to its bank accounts. The kingdom has promised to pump some $3 billion of its oil revenue to fund the Lebanese military. One of the weakest in the region, Lebanon’s army is outmanned and outgunned by all its neighbors and even by local militias.
Lebanon shares borders with Syria and Israel; it is highly unlikely that these weapons will be aimed at Israel. In fact, it is just as unlikely that they would be used against Syria, too.
The Lebanese army, though it has recently briefly – very briefly -- engaged both the Israelis to the south and the Syrians to the east, is in no way able to sustain any serious military engagement with either neighbor, who maintain far larger fighting forces, who are better equipped, trained and experienced.
A few weeks ago a Lebanese army patrol engaged a group of Israeli soldiers along Lebanon’s southern frontier, killing one Israeli soldier. And just this week the Lebanese army fired on a Syrian military helicopter that it said had violated Lebanese airspace.
But those are exceptions to the rules. Both the Syrian and the Israeli military are far more powerful than the Lebanese army, one that lacks a real air force, a necessity in any modern war to support ground operations. So if at the very outset the Lebanese army is not in a position to take on either neighbor, why then are the Saudis pumping their oil money into Lebanon?
In fact the Lebanese military is not designed or trained to fight foreign forces, rather it is the enemy within that it is really meant to engage. It is meant to be more of a police force on steroids rather than a weak army.
In the past it used to be the Palestine Liberation Organization that the Lebanese army saw as the real threat to the country. But since the Israeli invasion of Beirut and the forced departure of the PLO in 1982, the enemy within has transformed itself from the Palestinians to the new threat to the country’s sovereignty, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement.
Today the Shiite militia is more powerful than the national army. But as Hezollah has engaged itself in the Syrian civil war, fighting on the side of the government troops supporting President Bashar Assad, unless they disengage from the Syrian conflict, they are bound to suffer losses as the weeks turn into months and years and battles begin breeding greater casualties. With an introvert community, the number of replacements is rather finite. Before too long the death toll on the Lebanese combatants will be felt at home. And that’s where Saudi Arabia’s arms to Lebanon come into play.
Perhaps Saudi Arabia is banking on hopes that a watered down and weakened Hezbollah will be the decisive key to finally unseating Bashar Assad, with a little help from Saudi’s newly found friends at the Lebanese Ministry of Defense.
As for Saudi Arabia’s reasons to remove Bashar, they are many. Suffice to say that the Saudis are by far and large a Sunni Muslim country. Islam’s two holiest sites – Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi monarch carries the title “Custodian of the two Holy mosques.” As such, the Saudis are determined to see the regime of Bashar Assad, in which the minority Alawites, a derivative of Shiism, hold all the positions of power in Syria, be defeated.
In essence, by arming the Lebanese military as they are -- $3 billion buys an awful lot of arms for an army the size of Lebanon’s—the Saudis are looking to further weaken the Syrians by having Hezbollah placed in check by the Lebanese military.
But the danger here is two-fold: first in upping the ante, as it has done, the Saudis are escalating the conflict. They may be seeing this as containing a problem but nothing in the Middle East ever turn out as initially planned and such ventures end up taking on a whole new life of their own.
And second, much of what the Saudis are doing today comes about as a reaction to the kingdom’s current state of poor relations with the United States, at whom Riyadh is at odds over the US’s non-intervention in Syria. A condition placed by the Saudis on the money given to Lebanon is that the weapons must be purchased from France and not from the United States.
The problem in starting a political fire is that unlike a burning oil well, they are harder to extinguish.
By Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani is a political analyst and journalist. He is senior editor at Trend News Agency in Baku, Azerbaijan. Follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani.