LEBANON: U.S. military assistance not so "glamorous" after all
There is much ado about the United States' military support to the Lebanese army.
A senior Pentagon official said recently that Israeli misgivings are taken into account prior to any decision regarding U.S. military assistance to Lebanon. This was also echoed by the Lebanese media today, which said that Washington would never help Lebanon with heavy weapons that could pose a threat to the Jewish state.
Chris Straub, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian affairs, said in a recent interview publicized by a Pentagon news release earlier this week:
"We don't have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel's qualitative edge.... That's a commitment we take very seriously."
Local news reports claiming recently that the U.S. was planning on supplying Lebanon with M-60 battle tanks stirred fears among Israeli officials that the weapons would eventually fall in the hands of the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
In his interview, Straub acknowledged that the US.. would deliver M-60 combat vehicles to the Lebanese army, but he also reassuringly said that these modern tanks are "no match" for Israel's Merkava 4 main battle tanks.
The U.S. official made it clear that the U.S. was helping Lebanon's army with "the military basics, which are not always the most glamorous." American assistance was intended mainly to help Lebanon police its own territory, specifically to quell Sunni Muslim militant groups in Palestinian refugee camps and the north of the country:
"We're not trying to build up some juggernaut that could be threatening to anyone in the region, but to make the Lebanese armed forces capable in their own country.... We think we are helping make the region more peaceful –- at least more possibility for peace in the region –- by giving the Lebanese government the ability to control the events in its territory -– whether it be terrorism or militias."
Straub's comments coincided with the quick visit that Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, made to Beirut on Tuesday. According to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Petraeus discussed with top Lebanese officials military assistance to Lebanon as a way to preserve "peace and stability" in the country:
"The U.S. Government has provided over $410 million in military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces and it will continue to support the legitimate institutions of the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people as they seek to preserve their independence and security."
Reports by the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily As Safir quoted unnamed Lebanese sources as saying Petraeus told officials in Beirut that Washington had no intentions to provide Lebanon with heavy weapons because "the U.S. military strategy in the region takes into consideration Israel's military edge."
The newspaper said that the U.S. would not deliver any arms to Lebanon before the critical parliamentary elections scheduled for next
week year. These elections will determine whether Hezbollah and its allies or the Western-backed political faction would have the upper hand in the country.
Other local media reports said that Petraeus was in Beirut for only few hours on an "explorative" mission to meet with Lebanon’s new army chief, Gen. Jean Kahwagi.
Kahwagi's visit to Damascus last weekend to talk about cooperation on the defense level with the Syrians created controversy in Lebanon, with some politicians saying it was premature to coordinate security matters with Syria.
-- Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photo: U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, left, meets with Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, on Tuesday in Beirut. Credit: Mahmoud Tawil / Associated Press