Saudi Arabia and Iran have offered apparently competing aid packages to Lebanon’s small and modestly armed military as it confronts rising attacks at home by militants with ties to extremists fighting in Syria’s civil war.
The pledges total billions of dollars’ worth of mostly light arms and underscore mounting concern among the Persian Gulf foes about the stability of a country where both have invested significant resources.
The aid is on top of the more than $1 billion spent by the United States since 2006 to train and equip the 16,000-member army, which has limited authority and yields to Iran-backed Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militia. Hezbollah supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against Saudi-backed rebels.
Many suspect the offers of assistance from Riyadh and Tehran are simply another instance of one-upmanship between the Sunni and Shiite powerhouses.
“You have to look at this as a regional issue, as part of their broader competition for influence,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general.
“When they give to the Lebanese army, they know this means they can have hands in its politics and how it’s trained and equipped,” he added.
Late last year, Riyadh agreed to give $3 billion worth of French-made weapons to Lebanon’s military at a still-unspecified date. It also granted $1 billion in emergency aid to the country’s military and intelligence agencies in August after militants linked to extremists in Syria briefly captured the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Combined, the pledges amount to more than double the military’s estimated annual budget.