By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2014 – Despite impacts from the Syrian conflict, Lebanon is making progress in security and stability, but continued U.S. engagement is crucial, the Defense Department’s principal director for Middle East policy said here yesterday.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael T. Plehn testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near Eastern and South and Central Asia Affairs subcommittee on the security situation in Lebanon.
“Our continued engagement and assistance to Lebanon and the Lebanese armed forces is all the more important in this time of increased challenges to Lebanon’s security,” he said.
The Lebanese have just agreed upon a new government, Plehn noted. “This important step provides us with an opportunity to increase our engagements,” he said, “both with Lebanon’s government as a whole and the Lebanese armed forces, in particular.”
The general said the Syrian conflict’s impact on Lebanon has been “acute.”
“The Syrian conflict is also attracting foreign fighters from across the region and around the world,” Plehn said. “Those foreign fighters are becoming battle-hardened and gaining experience that could have destabilizing effects in years to come. Of great concern, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in particular, has exploited the growing governing vacuum in eastern Syria to carve out territory to train its fighters, recruit more fighters, and plan attacks.”
Plehn said both ISIL and Al Nusrah Front have established a presence in Lebanon and are seeking to increase their cooperation with Sunni extremists groups already operating in Lebanon.
Sunni terrorist attacks are on the rise in Lebanon, he said, noting that seven attacks against Shiia population centers have been executed in 2014. “Approximately 10 individuals have died and more than 120 have been wounded in those attacks,” Plehn added.
The general said the Lebanese armed forces have taken “bold measures” to maintain stability and counter the destabilizing effects the Syrian conflict risks to Lebanon’s security.
“The increased operational tempo of Lebanese armed forces deployments over the past few months reflects their commitment to Lebanon’s security,” Plehn said.
“In fact, the LAF's willingness to exercise its role as the sole legitimate defense force in Lebanon has made it a target as well,” he added. Lebanese troops, he said, were killed last weekend in a suicide bombing near a checkpoint.
Since 2005, the United States has been Lebanon’s key partner in security cooperation, Plehn noted, having allocated nearly $1 billion to support the Lebanese armed forces and the country’s internal security forces.
“For fiscal year 2014, we have provided approximately $71 million in foreign military financing … and $8.7 million in fiscal year 2013 [counterterrorism] funding,” he said. Since 2006, the United States has provided more than $100 million in counterterrorism funding to the Lebanese armed forces, he added.
“[This] assistance has enabled the LAF to monitor, secure, and protect Lebanon’s borders against terrorist threats and the illicit transfer of goods,” Plehn said.
The general said both foreign military funding and counterterrorism funding strengthen the Lebanese armed forces and support their mission to secure Lebanon’s borders, defend the country’s sovereignty and implement U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701.
Plehn also outlined assistance from international partners seeking to strengthen Lebanon’s security and stability situation. In December, the general said, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman announced that Saudi Arabia will grant Lebanon $3 billion to purchase defense items from France.
Working with international partners such as the French and the International Support Group for Lebanon, he said, the United States fully supports strengthening the Lebanese armed forces and ensuring its efforts are complementary and used effectively to meet these growing challenges.
Plehn also highlighted the International Military Education and Training program with Lebanon, noting that it’s the fourth-largest such program in the world.
“It builds strong ties between the U.S. and Lebanon by bringing Lebanese officers to the United States,” he said. “In [fiscal 2013], Lebanon received $2.9 million under the IMET program that allowed 67 Lebanese military students to attend education and training classes in the United States.” Since 1985, he added, this program has brought more than 1,000 Lebanese military students to the United States for education and training.
The general also said the Defense Department is focused on the Lebanese armed forces’ desire for institutional reform.
“The DOD has just instituted a Defense Institution Reform Initiative with the LAF,” he said. “This initiative complements a U.S. ‘whole-of-government’ effort supporting Lebanese security sector reform.”
With the current progress in strengthening Lebanon’s security and stability, it is critical to continue engagement with the country’s government and military, Plehn said.