Saudi Arabia has agreed to gift $3 billion of military aid to the Lebanese Army, effectively doubling the national military budget of the small Mediterranean country. The deal, procured in conjunction with the French government at the turn of the year, will be completed under the precondition that Lebanon must use the money to buy French weapons systems and hardware exclusively.
The generous gift from Saudi Arabia comes at a critical time for Lebanon, as it faces increasingly violent spillover into its borders from the Syrian civil war to the north and east. The timing of the deal shows that the Saudis see Lebanon as an important factor in the Islamic battle sweeping through the region. Internally, Lebanon is in tatters. Ten months after the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Lebanon still doesn’t have a working government. More recently, tit-for-tat deadly exchanges between Hezbollah (the Iran-backed, Shiite terrorist group and dominant military force in Lebanon) and the numerous Sunni factions of northern Lebanon (aligned with al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia) have destabilized the already fractured country. As Waleed Aly wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Lebanon has become not so much a country as a theater for regional politics.” On the surface, bolstering the Lebanese armed forces with $3 billion of military aid could be seen as having a stabilizing effect on the country. However, in reality, this Saudi gift is a clear sign further upheaval is on the way for Lebanon. Three geopolitical realities can be distilled from this move by Saudi Arabia.
Firstly, the deal reveals that Saudi Arabia views Lebanon as an important strategic asset in its proxy war against Iran. Historically, Lebanon is Iran’s baby. As a staging ground for wars with Israel, Iran firmly entrenched its terrorist proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Under the reins of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran has used Syrian territory as a conduit to send arms into southern Lebanon, creating an armed force that rivals most small countries.
However, since the outbreak of the war in Syria, and increasingly over the past year, Iran has sent Hezbollah fighters across the border to bolster Assad’s forces within Syria. Hezbollah has tried to walk the tightrope by accepting the orders of its paymaster in Iran while not compromising its image back home. In the past, many Lebanese accepted Hezbollah’s pseudo military dominance as it claimed to be necessary to counter Israel’s massive military might to the south. However, the longer Hezbollah fights in Syria, the more it is viewed by the Lebanese public as Iran’s lapdog rather than a protector of Lebanese interests at home. The fact that Hezbollah continues to fight in Syria, even after huge losses (some estimate more than a thousand fighters), shows how powerful Iran’s hold is over the group.
For Iran, it is a higher priority to protect Syria’s proxy status under President Assad than to worry about Hezbollah’s image in Lebanon. Without the Syrian land bridge for Iranian arms shipments, it is likely that Hezbollah could not maintain its dominance anyhow. As noted by Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, “Today, Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria, where it has taken significant losses, but it has also gone all-in on the side of the Assad regime, to the extent that it sees its own survival wrapped up in the survival of the Assad regime.” With Hezbollah heavily distracted in Syria for the distant future, the Saudis are attempting to bolster the Lebanese military to not only counter Hezbollah from within, but also to remove Hezbollah’s legitimacy as the only protector of Lebanon from Israel.
No doubt Iran recognizes what Saudi Arabia is doing, but there is not much it can do about it. Certainly, the fact that Saudi Arabia is giving this money indicates that, in its opinion, those armaments will not fall into the hands of Hezbollah, but rather will give the Lebanese Army the ability to disarm Hezbollah.
Secondly, Saudi Arabia no longer views the United States as a worthwhile partner in its Middle East policy. While this point has already been thoroughly made by the Trumpet—and confirmed most recently by the United States’s weak approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions evidenced by the outcome of the Geneva conference—the Saudis are no longer looking to include the unreliable U.S. in any Middle East deals. According to Benny Avni writing for the New York Post, “For decades, the Saudis have furnished their own military almost exclusively with U.S. arms. But the French are much more proactive than America these days in the Mideast and African theaters, so the Saudis trust them to assure that the weapons will go to the right cause.” On Friday, January 10, the United States went into damage control by sending Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy Mathew Spense to reassure Lebanese President Michel Suleiman that the U.S. will continue aiding the army of Lebanon to “fulfill its national role in preserving the country’s civil peace and stability.” He did not, however, show up with a $3 billion check in his back pocket.
Thirdly, Saudi Arabia is looking, instead, to Europe as a reliable partner. Reporting on the deal, Sami Nader of Al Monitor wrote, “The amount is the highest ever to the army, but the most alluring aspect of the initiative is not limited to the allocated sum. In fact, rarely has the Lebanese state received any donations. Rather, the bigger surprise is the emerging Saudi-French partnership, which constitutes a turning point
in the Middle East”(emphasis added).
With the United States no longer guaranteeing the protection of moderate Arab states against Iran’s reach for power, Middle East nations are scrambling to shore up allies. Saudi Arabia’s choice to limit the arms supplier to France shows the Saudis are looking to Europe as a viable partner. Staff at the Trumpet, guided by biblical prophecy, have watched for years for this change of direction. A prophecy in Psalm 83 describes how a conglomerate of Middle East nations, including Saudi Arabia and Lebanon (biblical Gebal), form an alliance with a German-led Europe to stand up to Iran’s aggression. Until now, it was difficult to see how Lebanon would break away from Iran’s hold, given the supremacy of Hezbollah within the country. However, with the announcement of the $3 billion deal between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, which uses European arms, the Psalm 83 alliance is forming before our eyes. While it may take time for the $3 billion to effect change within Lebanon’s military, the fact that Saudi Arabia is willing to invest in Lebanon as the next battlefront in its proxy war against Iran illustrates its belief that it can weaken and possibly turn Lebanon into an ally.