Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lebanon US base to counter Qaeda, Hezbollah or Russia?

by Mohamad Shmaysani

The issue of building a US airbase in northern Lebanon has resurfaced. Senior US political and military officials have been flocking into Lebanon since the Israeli war against Lebanon in 2006, the last of whom is Eric Edelman, the US Undersecretary of Defense for policy, heading a Pentagon delegation. The Lebanese daily Assafir raised speculations of a likelihood to build US military bases in Lebanon and alter the Lebanese army's creed. "It is perceived that the US is focusing on the army's directive which includes the fundamental national policy adopted by the army, particularly article five which stresses on the brotherly and special ties between Lebanon and Syria and article eight which underscores supporting the resistance," Assafir said.

In the report which the daily said is based on "reliable sources", the Eric Edelman delegation met with the head of the unconstitutional government Fouad Saniora, Defense Minister Elias el-Murr and Army General Michel Suleiman and tackled four issues: the military situation in Lebanon, security and intelligence, the situation of the Lebanese Army and Lebanese state policy.

US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman, who reportedly attended the Pentagon delegation meeting dismissed Assafir daily report as insulting to the Lebanese army. Sources closed to Saniora's unconstitutional government brushed aside as fabricated reports that the US had proposed building military bases.

Earlier reports revealed that a US airbase in the north of Lebanon would be built in the model of El-Udeid base in Qatar, for covert operations against the Syrian regime and to safeguard the oil pipelines of Baku-Tiflis-Ceyhan and Mosul-Kirkuk-Ceyhan.

“According to the US plan six military bases will be set up, three in Iraq, one in Jordan, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Lebanon. It is believed that the Lebanese government is approving the establishment of the base and the name of the base will be the US-Lebanese Center for Rehabilitation of the Army in order to cover the real activity of the base,” Amin Hotait, a retired army colonel said.

Prominent Journalist Franklin Lamb said that the project is being promoted as a 'US - NATO' base that will serve as the headquarters of a NATO rapid deployment force, helicopter squadrons, and Special Forces units, to make it more palpable.

"The Pentagon and NATO HQ in Belgium have given the project which, will sit along the Lebanese-Syrian border, using this vast area "as a base for fast intervention troops", a name. It is to be called The Lebanese Army and Security training centre". The base will provide training for the Lebanese army and security forces fighting Salafi, Islamist fundamentalists and other needs," he said. As reported by the NATO headquarters in Brussels, an American-German-Turkish military delegation toured and surveyed Akkar region. US Embassy 'staff' have reportedly visited Kleiaat airport earlier this year to look over the site. US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch also had a quick look at the site during his recent visit.

The Pentagon argues that the military base will contribute to the development and the economic recovery in the region, advising the Lebanese government to focus on the financial aspect and positive reflection on the population of the region. Contenders for the billion dollar project, according to the Pentagon procurement office could be Bechtel and Halliburton and other Contractors currently doing projects in Iraq.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Martyr Rafik Hariri, saw potential for the Kleiaat airport as well. But he very much opposed a US airbase. He was assassinated in 2005.

"According to Washington observers watching developments, the base has been pushed by elements in the office of the US Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the urging of Israeli operative Elliot Abrams. AIPAC can be expected to do the necessary work in Congress and with House Foreign Affairs, Appropriations, Intelligence, and Armed Service committees hermetically sealed by stalwarts of the Israel Lobby, it can be expected that it will be added as a rider to an unsuspecting House bill coming along," Lamb wrote.

"We need to get this base built as quickly as possible as a forward thrust point against Al Qaeda and other (read Hezbollah) terrorists", according to AIPAC staffer Rachael Cohen.

"The question for Lebanon is whether the Lebanese people will allow the base to be built. Few in North Lebanon doubt that Israel will have access to the base."

The Pentagon delegation headed by Edelman highlighted the issue of "extensive Russian presence" North of Syria; a threat to US presence in the region. The delegation also pointed to an ongoing "US – Russian cold war", new strategies adopted by Moscow and new moves which require a change of US strategy, especially in Lebanon, which is the closest location to the Russian base on the Syrian Port city of Lathikiya.