Something is brewing in Lebanon, and it doesn't look good.
On Wednesday, the country's Daily Star newspaper reported that the Russian ambassador to Lebanon confirmed that the two nations are in the process of negotiating potential military cooperation. This comes on the heels of Lebanon's request to the US in August for new aircraft to support counterinsurgency operations against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Saudi Arabia recently granted $1 billion to Lebanon to help its fight against the Islamic State, on top of another huge dollop of cash it pledged to the country's military last year.
Fighting from Syria's civil war finally spilled over into the Lebanese town of Arsal in early August, bringing ISIS forces with it. The country's Cabinet convened a special session just days later to chart a plan for getting military assistance from "brotherly and friendly countries." In other words, Lebanon is looking for guns and ammo from just about anyone willing to supply them.
So far, the support from Saudi Arabia, the US, and now Russia has been an extension, adjustment, or renewal of existing policies. Saudi Arabia announced a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese military at the end of 2013. The US has reversed its trend of declining military aid to the country with recent emergency shipments of equipment and weapons. News of the negotiations between Russia and Lebanon was preceded by an agreement to revive a Russian grant of helicopters and tanks from 2010.
It's widely known that Iran has been supplying Hezbollah, which more or less rules southern Lebanon as its own fiefdom, for decades. As a Shia proxy for Iran, Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces against both rebels and Sunni militant groups like ISIS. Several of those groups have been threatening to take the fight to Hezbollah, rooting them out of their Lebanese safe haven. This would almost certainly entail significant attacks on Lebanese territory, violations of national sovereignty that the army would want to repel.
This clamor for new munitions and weapons is understandable, given the alarm that ISIS is raising around the world. But there's another worrying possibility lurking in the distance: the prospect of another Lebanese civil war. Lebanon is a fractured country with loads of different ethnic groups, religious sects, and tribal clans — the last civil war there dragged on for 15 bloody years, from 1975 to 1990. Since then, the Lebanese military has played an important political role by providing a unifying, specifically national entity, incorporating people from many different backgrounds and affiliations.
Unfortunately, there are emerging signs that the fragile peace that has held for the last 15 years may be starting to fray. Elections this spring reflected the political instability that seems to perpetually plague the country. Meanwhile, conflicts over the lucrative drug trade have intensified.
Given that clashes in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have been sparked and inflamed by well-armed internal actors — much like advancing ISIS forces in Iraq exploited and relied on disgruntled Sunnis — the Lebanese government may just be another faction arming up in anticipation of impending chaos.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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