Saudi Arabia To Give Military Aid To Lebanon

Originally published on January 2, 2014 11:29 am
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Earlier this week Lebanon caused quite a stir when it announced that Saudi Arabia was giving it $3 billion to buy weapons. That's a huge windfall for Lebanon's armed forces which has long been poorly equipped and underfunded, especially in comparison to the other military force in the country - Hezbollah.


That parallel army, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., has long enjoyed generous financial support from Iran, Saudi Arabia's main rival in the region.

MONTAGNE: And the Syrian civil war raging next door to Lebanon adds to Saudi concerns. Saudi Arabia is backing the rebels. Hezbollah is supporting Syria's government. We reached Aram Nerguizian, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies to help unravel what's behind the $3 billion gift.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN: It's an incredibly complex story. For background sake, it's important to mention that the Saudi government has always had a very cordial relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces, but never one of significant military support. There hasn't been a long history of military aid or transfers of funds. Saudi Arabia traditionally supports allies in the Sunni community.

Lebanon is a country where you have about more or less a third of the country that is Sunni, a third of the country that is Shiite, and a third of the country that includes a majority of Maronite Christians. And that distribution is reflected in the Lebanese military, all the way up to how the officer corps is constituted.

So, for example, you have, you know, the commander of the army is always a Maronite Christian. You have four deputy chiefs of staff, one of which is Sunni, one is Shiite, and two others have to be Christian.

So you have a military that is, on the one hand, enjoys a lot support because it's viewed by a vast majority of Lebanese as being as close to representative of the complex, you know, communal tapestry of Lebanon in terms of its makeup, as one can get. And on the other hand, you have a paramilitary organization which started out as a guerrilla force and that now basically is an asymmetric combat force with some conventional capability that's been building up in urban war fighting.

MONTAGNE: Is it possible to say that Saudi Arabia has made this move with this huge amount of money to be a counterweight to Hezbollah - that is, support the Lebanese army the way Iran has sponsored Hezbollah?

NERGUIZIAN: The Saudi move is a geopolitical one. It's not just tied to Lebanese armed forces. But it's about shaking up the internal balance in Lebanon against Hezbollah. At the present, Hezbollah is the 800 pound gorilla in the Lebanese system.

MONTAGNE: Why is Saudi Arabia offering this huge amount of money now?

NERGUIZIAN: Saudi Arabia feels that in a number of countries - like Egypt, like Lebanon, like Syria - it needs to be far more proactive. And it needs, in some cases, to be far more aggressive in pursuing its national interests, which in some cases align with those of the United States. And in some cases the Saudis view a bit of a disconnect.

So in the case of countries like Lebanon, you have at least a partial perception that the United States is either not able or willing to do more to balance Hezbollah's role in domestic affairs, or to reshape the narrative in terms of Hezbollah's role fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria.

So this plan to provide $3 billion to the Lebanese Armed Forces plays into this broader logic of trying to change the narrative.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

NERGUIZIAN: I'm happy I can help.

MONTAGNE: That was Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaking to us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.