PARIS (Reuters) - France will start delivering military equipment to the Lebanese army in the first quarter of 2015 as part of a $3 billion contract to help the force fight jihadis from neighboring Syria, a French defense ministry source said on Wednesday.
Lebanon, whose sectarian divisions have been exacerbated by the war over the border, has said it needs more resources and better hardware to deal with the instability and encroaching fighters.
The contract has been funded by Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia which is keen to beef up Lebanon’s ability to counter what it sees as threats to the region from both hardline Sunni groups and Lebanon’s own Shi’ite Muslim movement Hezbollah.
The deal will involve about 20 French companies and cover a mix of land, sea and air equipment, including armored vehicles, heavy artillery, anti-tank missiles, mortars and assault weapons, the source said.
“We are aiming to start delivery from the first quarter of 2015, then every six months, until the delivery of helicopters,” over a total period of 36 months, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Intelligence and surveillance material, including drones, would also be sent and Paris would provide lightly-armed armed patrol boats as well as combat and transport helicopters, the source told Reuters.
“Beyond the technical training for the equipment, France also agreed to provide operational training which will mean that the contract won’t end after the final delivery and will last 10 years,” the source added, declining to say how many French military advisers would stay on.
Lebanon, a former French colony, fears Islamist insurgents from the Syrian war are trying to expand their influence into Sunni Muslim areas in its north.
Government officials see a rising threat from Sunni groups such as al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the ultra-hardline Islamic State, saying they may try to open up new supply routes between Syria and Lebanon as winter unfolds.
Hezbollah has also sent fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shi’ite-derived Alawite minority, against the rebels.
Saudi Arabia, which has already provided $1 billion in military aid to the Lebanese army, has recently taken part in U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria.
French and Lebanese officials had previously said Riyadh had been concerned that some of the weapons could fall into Hezbollah’s hands, a factor that may have delayed the deal which was originally agreed in principle last December.
“We’ll be there for 10 years. I don’t see how Hezbollah is going to drive away with a Caesar tank if we are around,” the source said. “The fact we’ll be on the ground is a sort of insurance for our client and partners.”
Additional reporting and writing by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Heavens