The Lebanese army is not out-gunned in its fight against militants holed up in Palestinian refugee camps in the northern city of Tripoli, despite reports to the contrary.
“During the fighting, Fatah al-Islam fired antiaircraft guns and mortars and used night-vision goggles and other relatively sophisticated equipment. The Lebanese army does not have such advanced gear,” The New York Times reported in its coverage of the ongoing Lebanese assault.
But what’s more sophisticated: a couple night visions scopes or a tank battalion?
The Lebanese army fields the whole range of forces from commandoes to armor and air units. On my sojourn to southern Lebanon last year I spotted M-113 armored personnel carriers, 105-millimeter howitzer batteries and M-48 tanks — all solid equipment in good working order, and all of which have been used in the camp assaults, according to CBS News.
And since the Summer War, the Lebanese army has accepted fresh arms worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. and other donors, according to MSNBC:
William Hartung, an arms researcher with the New School in New York, says that even without any new assistance, the U.S. has provided the Lebanese government with $885.5 million in assistance of all kinds. More than $313 million of that was for military aid, known as Foreign Military Financing, with an additional $5.5 million for military training, International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds. “Almost two-thirds of the $885.5 million came from the fiscal year 2007 supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan, $585.5 million in all. This includes $300 million in military aid, the vast bulk of the $313.3 million received for the entire period of 2001 to 2008,” Hartung noted. “So aside from a steady flow of Economic Support Funds (averaging about $35 million a year throughout the period), Lebanon had been virtually ignored on the aid front until after the Israeli conflict in 2006.” The Lebanese have spent the money on small arms, ammunition, Humvees, five-ton trucks, vehicle repair parts, small-arm repair parts, individual soldier equipment, protective vests, helmets and boots, as well as repair on equipment, helicopters and land vehicles, according to the State Department. “It’s all fighting equipment,” said Hartung. “It’s not for display.”
Sure enough, a shipment in January included 20 armored Humvees against a promised total of 300, according to Stars and Stripes.
Weapons are certainly a factor in tough urban fights like in Tripoli, but what’s more important is training. And that’s where Lebanon has an even greater advantage over the militants. Millions in aid has been invested in new army training since last year. The State Department has declined to discuss the issue, but there are probably U.S. contractors on the ground doing the actual instruction.
Whatever the scope and nature of foreign military aid in the past year, now Beirut wants more, as MSNBC reports:
“Right now we are considering a request for additional assistance coming from the Lebanese government. The Lebanese armed forces are engaged in a tough fight against a brutal group of violent extremists,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. …The Bush administration has asked Congress for $280 million in additional military assistance for Lebanon in the latest [U.S. military] supplemental funding request which has not yet been passed. The request made this week by Lebanon’s government is separate from the supplemental.
Also, consider the logistics picture. Fatah al-Islam is encircled in resource-poor camps. The Lebanese army has access to its supply depots and to emergency shipments from foreign allies, including Arab nations, according to Asia News:
The Arab League Council thanked “the Arab nations who are providing military equipment to aid the Lebanese army”. The League’s secretary general, Amr Moussa, refused to give details regarding the type of equipment, “But – he added – we will continue to see how to help Lebanon and it depends on the developments.”
The gloomiest assessments of the fighting have focused on the lists of fatalities: 22 militants and 32 soldiers as of today, May 24. This, some say, indicates that Beirut is losing. But in fact these number means little, for only the Lebanese army figures are even remotely reliable — and besides, at this scale the number of dead does not indicate victory. The power dynamics in the wake of the assault are the only metric for deciding who won. If after the dust settles, Beirut has more power in and around the camps and Fatah al-Islam has less, then Beirut wins.