A recent $3 billion grant from Saudi Arabia might allow the Lebanese Army to counter Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, as the dominant force in the country. The Saudi aid package is nearly twice Lebanon’s $1.7 billion annual defense budget. The money could make a decisive difference in the country’s complex political landscape. The army has earmarked much of the money to buy French arms.
The gift to the Lebanese Army may have been given to send a message to the United States just as much as it was to shift the military balance. Yezid Sayigh, a scholar of Arab militaries at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, commented on the matter, saying that the Saudis were declaring a “tactical divorce” from the Obama administration. The Saudis are frustrated with America’s indecisiveness on Syria and reconciliation attempts with Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. Mr. Sayigh said “They’re on the warpath, angry, and that doesn’t make for good policy.”
The Saudis are clearly alarmed at Hezbollah’s staying power in Lebanon and its intervention in Syria’s civil war. In recent months, the Syrian civil war has intensified as the sectarian power struggle between Sunni and Shiite forces continued and has spilled over into Lebanon. Saudi Arabia backs the predominantly Sunni insurgency in Syria while Iran is an ally of Syria’s Shiite-led government. Some believe that it will take years for the aid package to make any impact on the conflict.
If Saudi pressure pushed Lebanon’s government to order the army to confront Hezbollah, it would risk fracturing the force along political and sectarian lines. Mr. Sayigh said that the United States had not tried to link its aid to Lebanon’s army with action against Hezbollah because it would destroy the closest thing the country has to a broad-based national institution. Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese military analyst who favors Hezbollah said, “Those are illusions. The Lebanese Army would be dismantled.”