A senior Pentagon official said last week that the U.S. military would like to see a strategic partnership with Lebanon’s army to strengthen the country’s forces so that Hizbullah would have no excuse to bear arms.
The comments by Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, in an interview aired on Lebanese television two days after his visit, followed a published report in Beirut that Washington is proposing a treaty with Lebanon to make it a strategic partner to counter increased Russian influence in neighboring Syria.
The report, published by the opposition-leaning newspaper As-Safir, was at the time vigorously denied by the government and ridiculed by the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon.
“This is totally untrue,” said Ahmed Fatfat, a leading member of the government team who holds the youth and sports portfolio, adding that Lebanon neither sought nor had the Americans asked for such a treaty.
Edelman’s remarks, however, shed new light on the emerging relationship between the Lebanese and U.S. militaries two months after the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam group was crushed in a 3-month long battle.
“What we’ve been trying to do consistently is to create circumstances in which Lebanon can have a strong state, strong army, a democratic system with the military accountable to civilian control and to the government and to the people’s representatives in the parliament,” he said on the privately owned Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television.
“We believe it’s in our interest to have a strong democratic state in Lebanon … That’s what we’re working toward.”
The military in Lebanon is an all-volunteer force of 56,000, with about 220 battle tanks, no effective air power and no air defense system. It has over the decades been unable to halt Israeli incursions or take full control of its territory from armed groups like Hizbullah and Palestinian guerrillas.
During the 1975-90 civil war, it fractured along sectarian lines. Lebanon’s army deployed for the first time along the Israeli border following last summer’s war between Hizbullah and Israel, with the help of 13,000 peacekeepers.
Since that time, the United States has sharply increased its military assistance to Lebanon to $270 million in 2007 — more than five times the amount provided a year ago.
Lebanon’s opposition has accused Washington of seeking to take control of Lebanon.
Asked whether helping the Lebanese army aimed at eventually taking on Hizbullah, Edelman said that as the army strengthens its capabilities there will be less excuse for other armed groups to continue to bear arms.
“I think what we will see over time is if we have an army that is capable of fulfilling all the normal requirements of a state then the idea of having other armed forces that are not accountable to the government or the people’s elected representatives would no longer be necessary.”
Beirut’s As-Safir newspaper reported that the U.S. proposal for a treaty was to counter the heavy Russian presence in northern Syria which presents a danger to the American presence in the region. There has been speculation for the last two years of Russia seeking to establish a naval base in northern Syria, once a close Russian ally in the Middle East.
Under the blueprint of the alleged treaty, the United States will provide the Lebanese army with assistance, training and intelligence while Beirut would allow the establishment of bases, radar stations and other facilities.
The report added that the Americans wanted the Lebanese army’s current doctrine, which describes Syria as a friendly state, Israel an enemy and Hizbullah as the resistance to the Israeli occupation, changed.