Lebanon Gets Bradley Fighting Vehicles as it Continues to Battle ISIS

The delivery reflects increasing American support for the country's complex fight against terrorists.

US State Department

Lebanon has taken delivery of their first M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles from the United States. This is a significant boost for the country’s armed forces who are engaged in a complex and largely forgotten front in the fight against ISIS and reflects otherwise expanding American military involvement in the country.

On Aug. 14, 2017, eight M2A2s rolled off a commercial merchant ship onto a pier at the Port of Beirut in the Lebanese capital. The armored vehicles are part of a total order of 32 Bradleys valued at more than $100 million.

The M2A2s “will provide the Lebanese Armed Forces with new capabilities to protect Lebanon, to protect its borders, and to fight terrorists,” U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said at a ceremony to mark the transfer. “Over the next several months, the [Lebanese] Army will undergo intensive training on how to operate and maintain this new, very sophisticated combat system.”

The first A2 Bradleys entered U.S. Army service in 1988, but received significant modifications after the Desert Storm in 1991. The subsequent Operation Desert Storm, or ODS, subvariants received an eye-safe laser range finder, GPS-navigation system, an infrared imaging system for the vehicle’s driver, a computerized battle management system, and other upgrades.

AP

A Lebanese soldier takes a pictures of another sitting on top of one of the new Bradleys

Though hardly new, the vehicles are significantly more capable than the Cold War-era M113A2 and A3 armored personnel carriers that make up the bulk of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ existing armored units. These vehicles are lightly armored and have a single .50 caliber machine gun as their main armament in an open-topped turret. Lebanon has modified some to carry the Soviet-era ZPU-23 23mm anti-aircraft gun, which is deadly against lightly protected ground targets, as well as TOW missiles.

Comparatively, the Bradley offers better armor protection against both small arms and light anti-tank weapons and protects the gunner inside a full-enclosed turret. The M2A2’s main armament is a 25mm chain gun, supplemented by a co-axial machine gun and two-tube TOW missile launcher.

Perhaps more importantly, the infantry fighting vehicles have electro-optical and thermal imaging sensors. This means the vehicles will be able to help monitor Lebanon’s tense border with Syria and provide accurate more fire support for friendly troops at night.

These latter abilities are important as Lebanon has been fighting a low-intensity conflict along its sparely populated boundary with Syria since June 2014, when a force of ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front fighters briefly took control of the border town of Arsal. These clashes expanded as the Syrian civil war spilled over more into Lebanese territory.

AP

Lebanese troops move toward Arsal in 2014.

But the conflict quickly became multi-sided and complex as ISIS and Al Nusra ended all attempts at cooperation in 2015 and began fighting each other, as well as other terrorist groups and government security forces in both Lebanon and Syria. In January 2017, Al Nusra merged with four other groups to form a new entity called Tahrir al-Sham, officially breaking off its allegiance with Al Qaeda in the process. Various actors in the region dispute whether the organization has really severed ties with the global Al Qeada entity.

At present, the Lebanese armed forces continue to fight ISIS, Tahrir al-Sham, and other militant groups along the border. In July 2017, Lebanon launched its latest offensive into the Qalamoun Mountains, aimed at ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham.

Depending on how long this campaign lasts and the speed with which Lebanese troops learn to use their new vehicles, it is possible that the Bradleys could see their first combat against ISIS or Al Qaeda-linked militants, though the heavy armored vehicles are not particularly well suited to the mountainous terrain. Regardless, the vehicles will provide the country’s armed forces with extra firepower in a mobile, protected package for future conflicts and crises.

AP

A Lebanese soldier mans a machine gun on top of a tank near Arsal in 2016.

This delivery, which also included M992 armored ammunition carriers to go along with Lebanon’s M109 self-propelled 155mm howitzers, is the latest example of a long-standing relationship between the country and the United States that dates back to the Cold War. However, the U.S. military has had an especially active relationship with its Lebanese counterparts since 2007, when it rushed military equipment to the country and deployed a small number of special operators in response to an outbreak of fighting with the Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam.

Since then, the Pentagon has facilitated the delivery of a significant amount of military hardware, including small arms, 155mm howitzers, and Cessna AC-208 light attack planes. U.S. Special Operations Command Central has also maintained a small forward headquarters to continue training and advising Lebanese special operations units. More recently, the U.S. Air Force began training Lebanese pilots how to fly their forthcoming A-29 Super Tucano light attackers at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

Like the Super Tucanos, the Bradleys reflect an increasing willingness on the part of the United States to provide Lebanon more advanced weaponry to help it combat various regional threats. President Donald Trump and his administration have stepped up counter-terrorism efforts across the Middle East and North Africa and this support for the Lebanese military seems likely to continue and possibly expand in the near future.

The United States has already sent a new contingent of special operators to advise and assist Lebanese troops fighting ISIS, though there are no reports of American artillery arriving in the country to support the border campaign as there has been in both Iraq and Syria.

Unfortunately, as we have already seen in Iraq and Syria, the fight against ISIS is messily intertwined with a number of other conflicts and competing agendas in the region. The situation in Lebanon is no different.

“Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hizballah,” Trump told Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a joint press conference in the White House's Rose Garden on July 25, 2017. “Hizballah is a menace to the Lebanese state, the Lebanese people, and the entire region.”

Given that many believe Hizballah assassinated his father, Rafic, in 2005, Hariri would probably not be inclined to disagree, but there’s still one glaring problem with this statement. The organization, which receives support from Iran for its parallel armed forces and which the United States has designated as a terrorist group, is part of Lebanon’s democratically-elected government and commands the support of a significant portion of the population.

The situation has only become more complicated considering the group’s fighters are active participants in Syria’s civil conflict, fighting on behalf of the country’s brutal dictator Bashar Al Assad and working alongside Iran and Iranian-backed militia groups. Despite operating in the same area, Lebanese military officials insist that they are not coordinating their Qalamoun offensive with either the Syrian Arab Army or Hizballah. It's also worth noting that the "de-escalation zones" that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have tried to establish do not cover the border between Syria and Lebanon and it did not appear to be a consideration in a reported US-Russia brokered ceasefire arrangement.

AP

A Hizbollah fighter mans a watchtower armed with an anti-tank missile along the Lebanon-Syria border.

But not everyone appears entirely convinced that there is no connection between the two parties. Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria, as well as the Lebanese government’s apparent unwillingness or inability to stop them from doing so, prompted Saudi Arabia to cut off a $3 billion military aid plan in February 2016. The Saudis see both the Syria Regime and Hizballah as part of the so-called “Shia Crescent” and extensions of Iran, their major regional competitor.

All of this potentially puts American forces in the country in their own complex position, as the Trump administration is determined to try and check Iran’s influence, including through proxies like Hizbollah, throughout the region, but also fight ISIS and other terrorists. The United States has already had to deal with a similar situation in Northern Syria, playing peacemaker between Turkey and Kurdish groups, both of who are ostensible allies of the U.S. military-led anti-ISIS coalition in the country.  

“The United States military has been proud to help in that fight [against terrorism in Lebanon] and will continue to do so,” Trump said to Hariri in July. “America's assistance can help ensure that the Lebanese army is the only defender Lebanon needs. It's a very effective fighting force.”

Right now, however, American troops and their Lebanese partners and U.S.-supplied equipment, such as the new Bradleys, are in the middle of a tense, multi-sided conflict.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com