Mother of sparks is back…

The Lebanese Arabic-language daily As-Safir has again – as two years ago, read my blog post about it here – published a frontpage article (unsigned) about US plans to set up military bases (in this case an airbase) in Lebanon. Practically, the plan is to revive the never-finished civil war-era Pierre Gemayyel airport in Hamat, a village in the Batroun district between Byblos and Tripoli. I have been there to see it, and today it is a severely deteriorated strip of concrete with some concrete sheds evidently used by junkies as well as housing a few bored Lebanese army conscripts and used primarily as a racing track by local youths. The idea is to have an airport which is not situated in areas ‘under the influence of the Shia sect’. As-Safir claims the issue is currently being discussed at the highest echelons of the Lebanese Armed Forces and pushed aggressively by various high-placed civilian and miltary US players, including general David Petraeus. Unfortunately, the article quotes only anonymous sources and ‘followers of the file’, in addition to ‘eye witensses in Hamat’ (and one Junblatt quote dating from early 2005). Unsubstantiated as the story might appear to be, it does keep cropping up at regular intervals (only last year, during the May clashes, there was talk about reviving it when Beirut’s airport was temporarily closed by Hizbullah) and holds an obvious importance if only for the reactions it would elicit among the US’s many opponents in the country. After all, it would imply using Lebanon as a base for operations in the entire region, which is the one disaster the country’s feuding warlords have managed to avoid so far. So here is a (rather shoddy and basic) translation I made of the entire article, which was published last Monday, September 28th, 2009.

‘A Lebanese or US airbase in Hamat? Washington insists and its military team is scouting the area…while the army leadership is taking (it) into (serious) consideration’

Unsigned front page article, cont. on p. 16

‘The Americans once again prove that Lebanon will not be contracted out to anyone (but them), nor will it be left to the Lebanese, and the Americans themselves will decide on its business. Once again, the Americans give tangible proof that they bet on Lebanon being, one way or the other, (their playing) field not just for their politics and its complicated calculations, but even for their military and strategic projects for the whole of the Middle East. Why this conclusion, which to some might seem rash, or an exaggeration which the case doesn’t merit?

The story began immediately after the spring of 2005, when American visitors, and specifically military delegations, started complaining about the situation of the International Rafiq Hariri Airport in Beirut, even pronouncing a “veto” on the appointment of a Lebanese officer of the Laqis family to the position of general director of the Sûreté Générale, after the parliamentary elections of summer 2006 were a mere expression of what the Americans planned for land, sea and air access to Lebanon, linked to the issue of Hizbullah’s weapons and its freedom of movement in the Lebanese field.

That summer, in the heat of the “quadripartite alliance”, and in a clear moment at Mukhtara, Walid Junblatt said in front of his guests: “The closer I get to the Americans, the more they disgust me. They do accord us any importance. The boot of a US soldier in Iraq is worth as much (to them) as the entire Arabic and islamic umma”. He warned of an American attempt to set up military bases in Lebanon to target Syria and the resistance. A few months later, his calculations changed, but then he picked up the compass again in 2008 and started choosing new options in politics, especially relating to US policies in the Middle East.

The complaint moved from the situation of the airport and some military and security institutions to include other issues, until a military delegate said it orally and openly in front of his Lebanese hosts: how about setting up a Lebanese military airbase in Hamat? The same thing was suggested to Lebanese officers who visited the US capital. Even some Lebanese personalities who have been friendly with Washington heard about it directly and blatantly. In the last phase, those who followed this political and security file add that one specific Lebanese officer – high up in the air force – has presented a written request to the Lebanese military leadership for the construction of a military airbase in Hamat and the rehabilitation of the (military) airport of Qlayat. The military leadership immediately followed up on the subject, forming with an oral (i.e. unwritten) decision a committee to study the request mentioned. The request was supported by an American civilian – not military – personality, who insisted on directing the idea towards extracting the military airbases from the influence of the shia sect, in case any security problems   arise in the future. Despite dozens of (previous) procedures which the Americans imposed on Beirut airport, specifically after the birth of resolution 1701 and what it entailed in “exits”, the situation of the airport remained a constant concern to them, as is shown by the fact that they tend on many occasions to use the helicopter landing platform at their embassy in Awkar, and this situation in itself needs to be analysed and debated by the Lebanese military, security and political leaders, for it is an unprecedented reality, occurring elsewhere only in Iraq. Is it possible that a self-respecting country would allow foreign planes to land on its soil without knowing what and who they carry, and this for long years now? Has the trust of the Americans in the (Lebanese) military and security institutions reached such a low as to grant them sovereign nationalist powers and authorities (in Lebanon), and do we see a pattern for this US behaviour in all third world countries? Those following up on this file say: “The Americans aim to refurbish Qlayat airbase for jets so as to avoid keeping the planes in the airbases of Beirut or Riyaq, because both are considered to be in the sphere of influence of Hezbollah.” Moreover, Riyaq is surrounded by mountains that can obstruct the movement of the jets if the local powers want them to, and lies at a stone’s throw from the Syrian ground-to-air defenses. Qlayat lies right by the coast and the ability to manoeuvre around it in case of any local conflict is better, but it is still in the Syrian firing line whichever way you look at it. Therefore, preference goes to the Hamat airport for various considerations, most importantly that it alone is not situated in an islamic-controlled zone – whether Hizbullah or “salafist groups”. Secondly, the situation of the landing strips makes it possible to approach and take off in the direction of the sea rather than towards Syria as is the case in Qlayat and Riyaq. Thirdly, the geographic distance separating the base and the coast is short, and does not contain any “sensitive areas”, unlike the other bases. Some of the sources following up this story point out that a number of American officials, including the man in charge of US operations, Gen. David Petraeus, have hinted that US military aid in ‘air weapons’ is conditioned on guarantees that they will not be located in places where they are a target in Hezbollah’s or any other armed faction in Lebanon’s firing zone, including the Palestinian camps. One of the benefits of a refurbished Hamat to the Americans is that it would form an important military base used primarily to land military helicopters – unless the obstacles obstructing the use of Hamat for jets are dealt with, because the area is on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean.

Hamat, a coastal village near Batroun, lies on the outcrop of Ras Chekka and is distinguished by its strategic location on the east coast of the Mediterranean. It lies at 300m height, 7km from Batroun, 21 km from Tripoli and 56km from Beirut. It can be accessed from Batroun and Chekka and from an intersection on the international highway linking Beirut and Tripoli.

The idea for Hamat goes back to Bashir Gemayyel when he was the leader of the Lebanese Forces. Feeling under siege after the closure of the route between Shatri and the capital in 1975, he assigned a team of experts to study the idea of an alternative to the airport of Beirut. Because Hamat was under the control of the Syrian military back then, he ordered them to ignore it and in early 1976 requested, in coordination with father Charbel Qassis, to build an airport on the land of the Kaslik monks in Maad, Byblos (50km from Beirut, 525m height). But as soon as the situation of Hamat changed in the summer of that year (i.e. Syrian control ended), Gemayyel told the research team to transfer to Hamat and work soon started on building a military airbase. This was never completed because of the invasion of the Arab Deterrence Forces in the north, who took the base as their centre and installed military checkpoints around it, which remained there until the Syrians’ exit in 2005. Currently there is a Lebanese military barracks there – until now it is merely a concrete landing strip. According to followers of the file, it is not very unlikely that a military personality reactivated this file after an external and internal political nudge. Eyewitnesses in Hamat say they have in the last few years observed recurrent visits of non-Lebanese military delegations (which they recognised as such from their license plates), escorted by civilians carrying maps and hi-tech devices. One of the witnesses says there has been more than one topographic study of the area of the strip.

Why was the Hamat file reopened recently, and what kind of conflicts are the Americans preparing for Lebanon and the Lebanese, and does Lebanon actually need this many military airbases, and does having them guarantee that the Americans will deploy a protective air defense umbrella over Lebanon in case of a new Israeli attack on Lebanon? Or could it result in the exact opposite? And besides these questions, what is the interest of the Lebanese army in reactivating this file, and can the army with its humble resources and budget handle the financial, security, military and even political costs involved?

On the other hand, Safir has found out that a very high-level Russian delegation will be arriving in Beirut within the next few weeks to check the military airports of Lebanon, “paving the way for executing the promises made to Minister of Defense Elias Murr to give Lebanon Migs 29, We also know that the Lebanese team which will be flying these promised airplanes has almost finished studying Russian in Beirut, after which they will head to Moscow to train flying the planes.’

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