U.S. Military Returns to Lebanon, Quietly

A quarter-century after the U.S. military’s failed Lebanese Army Modernization Program, and the humiliating withdrawal in 1984, the Pentagon is quietly laying the groundwork for re-establishing close ties with the Lebanese military. The United States now has an opportunity to rebuild Lebanon’s weak military and intelligence apparatus and help contain Syria, which is now under late President Hafez al-Assad’s “less gifted son Bashar,” and subdue radical elements in the south.

The U.S. military dispatched about a dozen officers to Beirut in November and December to review the country’s armed forces, its mostly U.S.-made hardware and come up with suggestions for reform, the Chicago Tribune reported from Cairo. The Lebanese request for military assessment was made through the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Britain, France, Egypt and Jordan are also involved in the apparent efforts to modernize the Lebanese Armed Forces. Brigadier General Mark T. Kimmitt, deputy director of plans and policy at U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM], confirmed the review but declined to comment further.

Much of the military hardware in Lebanon came from the United States in the 1980s under President Reagan’s Lebanese Army Modernization Program that included reorganization, training, tanks, armored personnel carriers and other equipment. That program eventually crumbled after more than 300 U.S. soldiers and diplomats were killed in multiple bombings in 1983 Beirut.

The Tribune, citing unnamed sources, said three U.S. teams surveyed the aviation, naval and army equipment, reviewed personnel and found them inadequate. British military officers also visited Lebanon to discuss strategic policy, while French experts went there to survey police and security forces.

The U.S. State Department has asked for US$40 million in FY 2007 to spend on scholarships and educational institutions in Lebanon. Also for Lebanon, State has asked for US$5 million in grants for U.S. military hardware and services and another US$1 million for training military personnel.

Syria has historical claim to Lebanon as well as strategic and economic interests in the country. Lebanon was part of the Syria Province, administered from Damascus, during the Ottoman rule from 1516 to 1918 and was part of an independent Syrian republic for two years. Under the League of Nations Mandate in 1920, the French came in and carved out Lebanon.

While Syria has always exerted influence in Lebanon, it was Lebanese President Suleiman Franjieh, a Maronite Christian as required by the 1943 National Pact, who invited the Syrian army in 1976 to help deal with the civil war. A combination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, a weak Syrian head of state (Bashar al-Assad) and mounting international pressure led to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon on April 27, 2005.

Nearly 30 years of Syrian dominance left the Lebanese Armed Forces weak although the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center believes the “army remains a source of continuity and stability.” The overbearing Syrian mukhabarat co-opted pro-Damascus agents, many of whom have fled the country, and terrorized dissenters.

Now, Lebanon is without an effective intelligence apparatus — a void the U.S., Britain and France can help fill. The U.S. has been moving aggressively to support currently anti-Syrian politicians, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has purposely been snubbing the pro-Damascus president, General Emile Lahoud, and instead meeting with Prime Minister Siniora. In an interview with Future Television, a pro-Lebanon network in Beirut, President Bush, too, encouraged the Lebanese to be “courageous” and demand a democratic society.

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