Saudis fund French weapons for use in Lebanon

ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP: A French soldier with a MILAN anti-tank missile launcher in Mali, 2013

The first instalment of French-made weapons in a $3 billion Saudi-funded programme is due to arrive in Lebanon on Monday.


The weapons are part of a deal to bolster the country's defences against the Islamic State (IS) group and other jihadist groups pressing along Lebanon's Syrian border.

On Monday, anti-tank guided missiles will be delivered to an air force base in Beirut, overseen by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Lebanese counterpart, Samir Mokbel.

In the course of the next four years, France is expected to deliver 250 combat and transport vehicles, seven Cougar helicopters, three small corvette warships and a range of surveillance and communications equipment.

The programme is being entirely funded by Saudi Arabia, which is keen to see Lebanon's army defend its borders against jihadist groups operating in Syria, instead of leaving the job to Hezbollah militants, who are backed by Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Iran.

France is also contracted to provide seven years of training for the 70,000-strong Lebanese army and 10 years of equipment maintenance.

Since the conflict in neighbouring Syria broke out in 2011, Lebanon has faced mounting spill-over threats, first from the millions of refugees pouring across the border and increasingly from jihadists.

"There are an estimated 3,000 armed militants based on our border, waiting for the moment to penetrate into the Bekaa valley," Hisham Jaber, a former Lebanese general now at the Middle East Centre for the Study of Public Relations in Beirut, told AFP.

"They haven't come for tourism or to go skiing."

Giving Lebanon what it needs

France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, is actually a late-comer to the conflict.

To date, almost all Lebanon's international support has come from the United States and Britain.

France only won the contract to supply the Lebanese army, analyst Aram Nerguizian told AFP, because Saudi Arabia had been frustrated by US and British refusals to attack the Syrian regime in 2013.

"It was good fortune for the French, but they have a lot to prove. The momentum of the US and UK defence programmes in Lebanon is far more consolidated," said Nerguizian, who is a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The challenge has been to find French military equipment that Lebanon actually needs, he said, and to ensure it can be integrated with their existing weapons systems.

Nerguizian said Lebanon had turned down France's Gazelle attack helicopter, Leclerc tank and larger warships - because they were too expensive to maintain or were not suited to the combat environment.

Instead, the focus is likely to be on radar capabilities, and command-and-control systems, which the Lebanese army currently lack, as well as transport aircraft.

"We urgently need helicopters. We are currently trying to transport elite units by truck," said Jaber.

The Cougar helicopters and corvette warships will now need to be built, with the first not expected for at least 30 months.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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