The Russians have decided to further agitate Israel and the US by supplying one of the most defenseless countries in the world, Lebanon, with a small air force.
Russia will supply Lebanon ten MiG-29s, which is scheduled to be delivered before August 2009 to coincide with Army Day.
Israel and the US have expressed concern at the deal, warning it may threaten Israel's air force.
The deal comes as some of Lebanon's American-backed leaders express frustration at the US' "empty promises" to equip the Lebanese military. Washington had promised to aid and equip Lebanon's army after Syria withdrew in 2005, but little has arrived as a consequence of Israel's opposition to deliver potentially threatening weapons to Lebanon.
Defenseless or defensible?
Lebanon has long been Israel's soft target, a country it can pound as it pleases due to the country's lack of defense. Lebanon has no anti-air capabilities, little air or naval power, and a severely under-armed and under-trained army.
Hezbollah has proven to be Lebanon's main defensive arm of late, the country's only paramilitary organisation with substantial backing and training. But Hezbollah is only able to match Israel using guerilla warfare, and cannot defend Lebanon from conventional military incursions, such as air and navy.
Israel isn't frightened by Lebanon acquiring ten MiG-29s, it know it can wipe them all out within minutes. Its concern is that it won't be able to violate Lebanon's airspace without running into contact with a fighter jet. If the Israelis engage and shoot down a Lebanese MiG-29 in Lebanon's skies, the world - and more importantly Hezbollah - will view it as an Israeli attack on Lebanese territory. Such an attack could validate a military response by Hezbollah, and spark conflict along the border.
Russia tests Israel's patience
Israel's becoming increasingly alarmed by Russia's continued drive to equip its adversaries with weapons capable of causing harm to the Jewish state. Sophisticated arms sales to Syria and Iran have constantly caused Israel to panic, and the Israelis often model its defense capabilities on potential attacks by Russian-made systems operated by its two main rivals.
The Israelis never counted on facing a similar front in Lebanon. The Russians, still angry after Israel's military engagements with Georgia, are aware that Lebanon is traditionally a no go zone for arms sales. Any weapons deal with Lebanon is guaranteed to infuriate the Israelis, which appears to be the Kremlin's goal.
From Israel's point of view, the unstable Lebanon needs to remain utterly defenseless to ensure the Jewish state maintains its military superiority and intimidation over the country. A few fighter jets will do little to change the regional balance of power, but it's Russia's intentions in the Middle East and its willingness to add Lebanon to its list of military clients that troubles Israel and the US. Ten MiG-29s today, an anti-air system tomorrow? A handful of tanks next week?
Russia's decision to become a weapons supplier to Lebanon comes after continued frustration at Washington's broken promise to supply the Lebanese military with adequate weapons and equipment. Should Lebanon become dependent on Russia for military assistance, America's current allies in the country could see an interest in shifting closer to Moscow. Not exactly a desired outcome for the US.
There has been little comment from the Opposition and Hezbollah on the deal, although I don't believe there would be great objections. Parliamentary elections scheduled for 2009 could see the Opposition win majority and form government, placing Hezbollah in charge of Lebanon's military forces.
Indeed, such a victory would intensify Israeli and American objections to the Russian arms deal.
Internal divisions plague military
Regardless of the deal, Lebanon's military will remain considerably weaker than that of its neighbours. Lebanon's internal divisions and flawed political system ensures political instability and tension remains constant. The political system divides the country into sectarian cantons, each serving their own interest. This significantly weakens the national interest, and the national institutions created to serve the national interest.
The Lebanese army is the country's main national institution. Its weakness is a result of continued political infighting, rampant corruption, a poor economy, and a lack of centralised power. A strong military requires a strong economic and political will. Neither exist at present, and no political party has demonstrated a desire to change the status quo or enact desperately needed reforms of any kind, be it social, economic or political.
Until the country's political leaders summon enough will power to place the national interest at the forefront of their agenda and abandon tribal/sectarian politics, nothing will change.
Whilst we remain divided, Israel has little to worry about.
Israeli troops terrorise civilian on Lebanon's border
Meanwhile, Israel border patrols continue to taunt Lebanese civilians living close to the border. The latest incident involved Israeli troops throwing two smoke bombs and firing at a Lebanese farmer, Mohammad Ahmad Hassan Daher, near the southern village of Blida. The man was unhurt, but such attacks are not new.
If roles were reversed and Hezbollah had fired across the border, Israel would probably respond with a war.