The Lebanese army owed its victory over al Qaeda-linked Palestinian Fatah al-Islam this week, after a nearly four-month battle over the Nahar al-Bared camp near Tripoli, to an unpublicized, unlooked-for helping hand.
After watching the hopelessly drawn-out struggle, the US Central Command chief, Adm. William Fallon, on a brief visit to Beirut on Aug. 29, came to a fast decision: to make available to the Lebanese force besieging the camp a clutch of heavy bombs from the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Force anchored off Lebanon. (See HOT POINTS below).
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal that, when the Lebanese officials said they had no serviceable bombers for delivering heavy ordnance, nor did they even control the country’s only two military airfields, the American admiral produced a solution: US officers would take the air crews of Lebanon’s elderly helicopters in hand.
In short order, the Lebanese Air Force learned how to convert their UH-1H utility helicopters into bombers. They were then able to drop 250-kilogram and 400-kilogram bombs from altitudes of 3,000-4,000 feet onto target with the guidance of GPS instruments.
One Lebanese officer commented later: “The precision was remarkable. Most of the bombs landed within a 10-meter radius of their targets.”
In fact, many of the Nahr al-Bared camp’s buildings were destroyed with most of the Fatah al-Islam fortifications, which forced them to give themselves up.
While the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff were fulsome in their praise of the Lebanese army’s courage and self-sacrifice in the long battle with the Palestinian extremists, Adm. Falllon was less impressed. He took note of the length of time it took the Lebanese military to defeat 300 al Qaeda rebels.
A new force to safeguard central government
Before he left Beirut, therefore, he offered his services to the Beirut government “to work with you to complete issues that you consider beneficial to build the Lebanese Army to become an institution that could be even more beneficial than now for this country.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources have obtained the high points of the Fallon program for rebuilding the Lebanese armed forces and correcting its deficiencies.
1. In its present shape, the Lebanese armed forces are incapable of taking on a hostile force, foreign or local, large or small – as illustrated by the Nahr al-Bard battle.
2. The Lebanese army in its present format cannot be relied on to safeguard the Fouad Siniora government, or any other pro-Western administration. More than half its strength consists of Shiites whose first allegiance belongs to the political factions to which they belong. In present circumstances, Lebanon faces the same danger as Iraq. This was an implicit reference to the threat of sectarian warfare among the Sunnis, Shiites, Druses and Christian Maronites of Lebanon.
3. Fallon’s conclusion was that if the US and the West wished to preserve their influence in Lebanon, they must provide central government in Beirut with an efficient military as its buttress.
4. The US army undertook to establish within six months, four Lebanese commando brigades trained to secure the regime against any foreign or domestic threat and be professional enough to take on the Iran-backed Hizballah militia.
5. Fallon proposed sending serving soldiers to be vetted for their loyalty to the central government by American and Lebanese military panels, who would handpick those passing muster for the new force.
6. The four new brigades will be armed with the same equipment as American special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they will not be provided with an air force, an extensive navy or heavy artillery. Beirut will be free to call up such support from the US Sixth Fleet which patrols the Mediterranean or the French naval units cruising opposite Lebanon.
Some of the new units’ gear will also be French-supplied.
Our sources report that a French military delegation visited Beirut under cover this week to see what assistance was required for creating the new Lebanese brigades.
The United States is already directly involved in army-building in two other parts of the Middle East – Iraq and the Palestinian Authority.