Friday, March 03, 2006

U.S. Studies Lebanon's Military

Assessment is part of process to help nation's democratic forces
By Christine Spolar, Tribune foreign correspondent
Chicago Tribune
March 2, 2006

CAIRO -- U.S. military officials have been quietly assessing Lebanon's military capability, making a general inventory of its army, air and naval forces, and suggesting reforms following a request last year from top Lebanese government officials.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a top military planner, confirmed the review this week but would not elaborate on recommended reforms. The review was initiated after a request was made directly through the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, military and political sources said, and is part of a continuing process to help democratic forces in Lebanon.

"We're looking for stability," said Kimmitt, deputy director for strategy and plans at U.S. Central Command. "An unstable Lebanon is a danger to itself, to its immediate neighbors and the region. This is part of our overall strategy."

About a dozen U.S. military officers traveled to Beirut in November and December for the review, military sources said, and visited bases to produce three reports. The inventory was described as a comprehensive assessment of the condition of U.S.-made equipment in the Lebanon armed forces.

The U.S. inventory was a separate but coordinated effort with other Western embassies contacted by the Lebanese. Britain and France were asked to assess policy and policing needs. Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan, also were contacted and are engaged, sources said.

The Bush administration has been intent on shoring up democratic efforts in the region, and the military assessment was described as part of a drive to bolster Lebanon, coping in the past year with political assassinations, car and truck bombings, and popular demonstrations in support of a Lebanon free of Syrian involvement.

Neighboring Syria, which has long dominated Lebanese politics, was suspected in much of the violence, including a bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. That assassination touched off huge protests in Beirut. As international outrage spiraled, Syria withdrew thousands of troops from Lebanon after 30 years of occupation.

A United Nations investigation last year implicated senior Syrian security officials in the Hariri killing. Syria has denied the findings, but an inquiry continues.

A subsequent UN report last year further fueled concern over Lebanon's security. That report concluded that Lebanon was facing an "increasing influx of weaponry and personnel from Syria" for Palestinian military groups operating within its border. The situation remains volatile, according to the report, and illegal border traffic of arms and people, as well as terrorist acts, were "worrying developments affecting the stability of Lebanon."

Lebanon's integrity has been elevated as a priority for the Bush administration, as demonstrated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's surprise visit to Beirut last week. Rice snubbed Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, while finding time to meet with some leading political opponents.

Military help to Lebanon advances two U.S. national security aims: the spread of democracy in the Middle East and the application of pressure on Syria, which has long been considered a state sponsor of terror.

Three decades ago, as Lebanon fell into messy and deadly civil war, Syria was seen as one of the provocateurs in the regional conflict. Efforts by the Reagan administration to calm the situation effectively withered after 1983 when truck bombs hit the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and a U.S. Marine barracks, leaving more than 300 people dead.

Syria later emerged as a guarantor to an Arab-crafted peace deal that gave it broad influence over Lebanese affairs. Syria has allowed groups to operate inside Lebanon that are labeled terrorist by the U.S.--most notably Hezbollah, an Islamist organization that now has representatives in Lebanon's parliament.

The recent military assessment in Lebanon began after elections were held last year and Lebanese officials sought guidance on the readiness of the country's armed forces. The U.S. review found inadequacies in equipment and personnel, but some involved in the process said the equipment was in better shape than expected, sources said.

Sources described the assessment as a significant overall study because about 85 percent of the existing Lebanese inventory is of U.S. origin. Equipment surveys by the U.S. military, when requested, are not unusual, and the sizes of the teams sent were typical.

But the timing and the speed of the effort in Lebanon indicated sensitivity, sources said.

U.S. teams were detailed to suggest whether equipment should be repaired, upgraded or thrown out. Three U.S. teams were involved: teams assessing aviation and naval equipment spent a week, and the team assessing army equipment took two weeks.

U.S. defense officials are now considering whether to suggest additional foreign aid for modernization. British experts made a preliminary trip to Lebanon to pursue discussions on Lebanon's strategic policy. French experts were asked to assess police and security forces. It is unclear how far either of those reviews progressed.

The United States has had military assistance programs in Lebanon since the 1950s, but a coordinated effort with other Western embassies could give momentum to improving and refashioning the small but strategically significant military.

According to GlobalSecurity.org, the Lebanese armed forces were long crippled by infighting and internal upheaval. After Israel invaded in 1982, the Lebanese government sought a military overhaul. The U.S. responded then with a modernization plan designed to span several years. Jordan quickly donated equipment for a tank battalion; the U.S. transferred about 1,000 vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, within the first year, GlobalSecurity.org reports.

The Lebanese aspired to a force of 60,000 but could recruit only 22,000 by late 1982. Conscripts were then called up and accounted for two-thirds of troop strength. U.S. military advisers provided support and training in the first couple of years; hundreds of millions of dollars were spent until Lebanon's army was routed by militias as civil war spiraled in 1983 and 1984.

In 1988, Syrian troops moved into Beirut, and the military foundered. Only after 1991, as peace held, could the Lebanese rebuild the army again to 60,000 standing troops, according to GlobalSecurity.org. The U.S. was supportive of the peace accord and provided equipment in the rebuilding.

Lebanon still faced challenges. Israel maintained troops in southern Lebanon until 2000. As late as 2003, Syria had 20,000 troops in Lebanon. Hezbollah continues to have thousands of troops near the southern border with Israel.

Questions about Lebanon's military strategy were central to the effort recently completed by the U.S. assessment teams, said Kimmitt, the U.S. military planner.

"The larger question is: Who is their enemy? Are they looking at Israel? Al Qaeda? Syria? . . . In our minds, this is the army that sooner or later will have to stand up to the armed branch of Hezbollah. . . . And right now, it's a military [whose equipment] may be too large and too heavily armored for the threats around them," Kimmitt said.

Military aid to the Middle East plays a key role in U.S. foreign policy, and additional aid to Lebanon would fit into a familiar pattern. Egypt and Israel have received billions of dollars of military aid in the past decade; Beirut in fiscal 2006 received less than $1 million in military aid. Under the Bush administration's request for 2007, Lebanon would receive nearly $5 million in military aid.

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