BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – With Israel in a fragile cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza to the south, the army of this tiny country bordering Israel’s north is for the first time getting some serious military muscle, including its first fighter jets in decades.
The influx of hardware begins with Russia, which is trying to increase its influence again in the Mideast.
Moscow’s decision last month to provide Lebanon with 10 MiG-29 fighter jets comes at a sensitive time, with Israel just out of its second major armed confrontation in two years against neighboring militant groups.
The offer was made before Israel launched its offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Dec. 27 to stop rocket fire from militants on southern Israeli communities, but the conflict has made it all the more significant.
Separate cease-fires declared by Israel and the militant Islamic group went into effect Sunday, ending fighting that has killed about 1,300 Palestinians, according to Palestinian medical officials. Thirteen Israelis also have been killed.
Lebanon says it needs more hardware to ensure control of its southern border. During the Gaza fighting, militants fired rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel, prompting Israeli artillery fire.
The United States and Europe have long had an ambivalent attitude toward Lebanon’s 60,000-member army — wanting to beef it up as a lever against Hezbollah militants who control much of southern Lebanon.
At the same time, the U.S. and Europe fear that too much military hardware could enable the Lebanese to use it against Israel.
Either way, Russia’s military grant to Lebanon triggered an immediate reaction, with Washington promising Beirut a few days later to deliver tanks.
“Support for the Lebanese armed forces remains a pillar of our Lebanon policy,” said David Hale, a deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state. “We are working … to deliver modern M-60 tanks to Lebanon by the spring of 2009 and we’re preparing a new package of assistance including close air support capability with precision weapons and urban combat gear.”
The U.S. has committed $410 million in security assistance to Lebanon since 2006. Most has gone to logistics, communications, equipment, flak jackets, vehicles and training. In late December, the U.S. delivered 72 Humvees to Lebanon, bringing the total to 350 since 2006. A U.S. Embassy statement said 275 more Humvees will be sent by the end of this year.
For years, Lebanon’s military was dismissed at home and abroad as little more than an internal security force. The army was rebuilt after splintering along sectarian lines during the 1975-1990 civil war and has primarily taken the role of paramilitary police.
It has largely stayed out of the frequent battles between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the militants in southern Lebanon. But after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the army sent thousands of troops to southern Lebanon alongside U.N. peacekeepers in the border zone.
Lebanon has virtually no air force — about 30 unarmed helicopters and several 1950s-era British-made Hawker Hunter jets — and no effective air defense system. Israel routinely flies reconnaissance missions over Lebanon unchallenged.
But Mideast analysts don’t believe that 10 Russian-made fighter jets will tip the regional military balance, which remains heavily in Israel’s favor.
“The acquisition of 10 aircraft has more morale impact than material impact in the field,” said retired Lebanese general Amin Hteit.
The Russian offer gives Moscow an opportunity to play a role in the Middle East, where its influence waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Many Lebanese see the move as a sign of international commitment to their government as it seeks to control the south, and stop the fire toward Israel coming from Hezbollah and small Palestinian militant groups there.
“Russia wants to be on the Mediterranean. It seeks to play a role, but it also wants to stress Lebanese sovereignty,” Charles Ayoub, a former air force pilot and publisher of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian newspaper Addiyar, said in a TV interview.
Israeli analyst Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Moscow’s move “is part of the distancing of Lebanon from the West.”
Nevertheless, Israeli government reaction has been supportive because Israel would prefer to have the Lebanese army and not Hezbollah in charge of the south.
“The Lebanese state needs to be able to meet the challenges of armed militia, who under U.N. resolutions need to be disarmed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in Jerusalem, alluding to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, backed by Russia-allied Syria and Iran, maintains a heavily armed force with more than 30,000 rockets and some bigger missiles in its arsenal.