From Russia with confusion

by Claude Salhani

Beirut has been reported to have said “nyet” to a Russian offer of armaments and munitions worth several million US dollars. However, the issue was to pave the way for some major controversy.

The official word from the Lebanese Ministry of Defence was: “Thank you very much but your munitions are not compatible with our weapons.”

Indeed, the Lebanese Army has long been supplied with US and French weapons and defence systems. The standard rifle issued to Lebanese soldiers is the US-made M16, which uses 5.56mm calibre ammunition. The standard weapon of choice is Russia-supplied AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, which requires 7.62x39mm bullets.

However, some Lebanese police units use the Russia-made AK-47, which is also manufactured by Bulgaria, China and other former communist countries.

A military source confirmed the army had declined the offer, saying this was for technical reasons linked to the types of weapons used by the Lebanese military and had nothing to do with politics.

However, Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is aligned behind Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia group, said the army’s decision to rebuff the Russian offer was political, saying the United States was against the army accepting Russian aid.

Nothing in Lebanon is that simple. If the army said “nyet” to the Russian offer, the police, known as the Internal Security Forces and dependent on the Ministry of the Interior, said “da.”

The Russian language, rich in its literature, is probably the only one in the world with the word “da-nyet” — “yes-no” — rolled into a single word. Rather apt to describe the situation in Lebanon.

The office of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Al-Akhbar’s article was “devoid of truth.” Do I hear echoes of “fake news” resonating here?

“The Press Office clarifies that this is not true and that the Russian side was informed of the acceptance to receive the donation, from which the Ministry of Interior will benefit,” it said in a statement

Lebanon’s rejection of the Russian offer was a rather diplomatic one. Russian weapons and munitions are not compatible with Lebanon’s arsenal.

Relations between Russia and the United States are about as tense as they ever were, including during the grim days of the Cold War. The United States accuses Russia of meddling in its 2016 presidential elections. It decries Russia’s continued occupation of parts of Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and condemns Russia’s use of deadly chemicals used to silence dissidents in Europe, as well as looking dimly on Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russia and the United States are in fierce competition for arms markets around the globe. However, where Lebanon is concerned, the Russian-American rivalry seems far more driven by pure politics rather than by possible economic incentives. The Lebanese Army is relatively small, especially when compared to its neighbours, Syria and Israel.

Global Firepower’s 2018 Military Strength Ranking, which lists countries’ militaries, said the Syrian Army’s total net personnel is 304,000. Israel can call on some 615,000 service members, while Lebanon’s military has about 96,000 personnel.

Syria, of course, is a client of Russian weapons and Israel gets its arms mostly from the United States. The United States is the biggest donor to the Lebanese army, providing more than $1.5 billion in support since 2006.

Though Lebanon has long favoured US and European arms, it has been prevented by Israel from obtaining certain weapons, such as the Cobra attack helicopter citing fear they may fall into the hands of Hezbollah.

Perhaps the Lebanese Army’s greatest strength has been its ability to avoid a fight and keeping the army unified. This no small feat in a country where heavily armed militiamen are quick on the trigger.

The Lebanese Army is nevertheless a force to be reckoned with as it proved when it was tasked to fight groups such as Fatah al-Islam in the northern port city of Tripoli or battle threats in the Bekaa Valley where the Islamic State has tried to infiltrate elements into Lebanon almost daily.

The United States says the support to Lebanon was meant to strengthen the army as “the sole” military force defending Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed group Hezbollah holds major sway — and to counter threats from Syria.

Russian forces are widely deployed in Syria, where they have been fighting in support of Assad since 2015 alongside Iran-backed groups, including Hezbollah, which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington.

Local media and a Western diplomat this year said Russia was offering a $1 billion line of credit to the Lebanese military for arms and other military purchases.

For Lebanon, $1 billion may be a lot of money. For Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it’s chump change. However, if it buys the Russians an inside track into what has traditionally been Western turf, it would be worth every last rouble of Putin’s $1 billion.

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