On Monday the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) asked the U.S. government for military aid, in a bid to counter the thread of militant attacks from across the Syrian border.
The LAF beat back fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) earlier this month, after the extremist group stormed the strategic border town of Arsal. It is now asking for aid that includes ammunition and planes for close air support to fight the militants camped in the mountains.
As Syria’s war spills over the Lebanese border, the LAF is maintaining a defensive strategy, leaving the aggressive pursuit of ISIS and various rebel groups to fighters from the militant group Hezbollah.
We asked Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow and the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center focusing on Syria and Lebanon, to weigh in the aid requests and what they say about the spillover effect of Syria’s war.
Syria Deeply: What is the LAF’s strategy in fighting ISIS?
Aram Nerguizian: What the LAF have been doing is not a hunter-killer mission. Defeating and hunting down ISIS is not the mission. They are focused on a narrowly defined mission of border defense. The first is tied to detection: the LAF didn’t have the ability to detect what was going on around the border region. The other part is to defend, to build up the structure enough that you can put up some kind of the defense. The idea is to deny and deter entry. So the idea is not about going and hunting down ISIS or looking for the bad guy, it’s about defining a very clear geographic space in northern Lebanon, and defending that. While Hezbollah’s mission is the opposite: they’re going out and trying to hunt down ISIS.
This is “offensive defense”; it’s not a military that fires if unprovoked, or in a defensive role. They’re not going to do that. The hunter-killers trying to conduct offensive missions in northern Bekaa are Hezbollah. The LAF’s posture will remain defensive, but defense is about effective deterrence and bringing about the resources the country has. They are on the road to doing that.
Mario Abou Zeid: The LAF just cares about trying to stop any more spillover from the Syrian conflict. They are trying to limit the consequences of the spillover on these Lebanese towns, and definitely will not be thinking about crossing the border into Syria. The LAF hasn’t cooperated with regime forces or asked for help, and in Arsal it was the main player. All Hezbollah did was fire missiles across the outskirts of Arsal and the Syrian part of the border.
Syria Deeply: Where do things stand regarding the LAF’s request for military aid?
Abou Zeid: The U.S. has been engaged for years now in supplying the LAF with ammunition and equipment. Most weapons possessed by the LAF are U.S. made; it’s essentially a main sponsor. Yet there are many restrictions posed on these weapons by the U.S., mainly because of the Israeli fear of the LAF possessing advanced equipment that could be used against Israel, or acquired by Hezbollah in any internal conflict.
But with the urgency of the Arsal battle, the LAF needed equipment and ammunition in order to stop the extremists. As the U.S. has been committed to supporting the LAF, and the ambassador to Lebanon supports this need, the U.S. did supply advanced ammunition to be used by the LAF in Arsal. However, the supply was limited.
On the Lebanese-Syrian border, the U.S. will supply the LAF with needed equipment to control the border. This is the best option Lebanon has in preventing future spillover from Syria. We think that over the next few months, the U.S. will be restocking the ammunition lost in Arsal, and also there is talk of providing the LAF with close-support air craft. They have been asking for them for years, and in 2009 the U.S. did provide them [in limited numbers], and they turned out to be very effective. There are also talks about advanced equipment in terms of border control and observation.
The LAF is in urgent need to replenish its ammunition for future conflicts with ISIS. They were expecting the Arsal battle to spread to other border towns. Similar scenarios are expected in ther border towns, so all efforts are focusing on monitoring these towns and especially the refugees coming across the border.
Syria Deeply: What are the new developments in the LAF’s military strategy in fighting ISIS?
Nerguizian: The LAF had been planning for some kind of an attack. But they are novices at this, and they haven’t been in these sorts of combat scenarios outside of urban theaters. They made very heavy use of things like intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and artillery and guided fire. They also for the first time used guided munitions.
They did two things they hadn’t done before. One is the use of guided air weapons. The second thing is really trying to tie all of this [ground action] into a live video and audio feed, conducting operations with real time data streaming in. This informs what they’re asking for from the U.S.: for more assets to support the reconnaissance missions.