Correction: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect figure for the size of Lebanon's military. It has 65,000 members, not 16,000.

Lebanese army soldiers carry their weapons during clashes with Islamist militants in Tripoli on Oct. 25. (Stringer/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia and Iran have offered apparently competing aid packages to Lebanon’s small and modestly armed military as it confronts increasing attacks at home by militants with ties to extremists fighting in Syria’s civil war.

The pledges total billions of dollars’ worth of mostly light arms and underscore the mounting concern of the Persian Gulf foes about the stability of a country where both have invested significant resources.

The aid is on top of the more than $1 billion spent by the United States since 2006 to train and equip the 65,000-member military, which has limited authority and yields to Iran-backed Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militia. Hezbollah supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against Saudi-backed rebels.

Many suspect that the offers of assistance from Riyadh and Tehran are simply another instance of one-upmanship between the Sunni and Shiite powerhouses.

“You have to look at this as a regional issue, as part of their broader competition for influence,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general.

Lebanese army soldiers carry the coffin of Captain Jihad al-Haber, who was killed during fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in Tripoli. (Sharif Karim/Reuters)

“When they give to the Lebanese army, they know this
means they can have hands in its politics and how it’s trained and equipped,” he added.

Mideast rivals’ motivations

In December, Riyadh agreed to give $3 billion worth of French-made weapons to Lebanon’s military at a still-unspecified date. It also granted $1 billion in emergency aid to the country’s military and intelligence agencies in August after militants linked to extremists in Syria briefly captured the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Combined, the pledges amount to more than double the Lebanese military’s estimated annual budget.

On Tuesday, France and Saudi Arabia signed a contract for the $3 billion deal, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement that did not give details on the types of weapons involved or when they would be delivered to Lebanon.

During a visit to Beirut in September, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, responded with an arms offer from Tehran. According to Lebanese media reports, that consists primarily of antitank weapons, artillery and heavy machine guns.

Iranian support for Lebanon’s military would seem to complicate a desire shared by Washington and Riyadh to use the army as a counter to Hezbollah. Iran relies heavily on the group, which was allowed to retain its weapons to confront Israel as part of a 1989 agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

For the moment, Tehran’s interest in countering the advances in Iraq and Syria of Islamic State militants has aligned with the concerns of Washington and Riyadh. The U.S.-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against the extremist Sunni group in Iraq and Syria has reportedly agreed not to target forces loyal to Assad. Strikes on his forces also could hit fighters from Hezbollah and Iran, both firm allies of Assad.

In Lebanon, there also is widening recognition among feuding religious groups of a need to reinforce the military to counter mounting attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, said Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Lebanon’s military and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lebanese army soldiers patrol the streets after being deployed to tighten security following clashes between Lebanese soldiers and Islamist gunmen. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Last month, the military succeeded in quelling a revolt by Sunni extremists in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

“You have a sectarian elite that has no choice but to let the LAF help provide stability, albeit while kicking and screaming,” he said, referring to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Hezbollah, strained by the deployment of thousands of its fighters in Syria, has become increasingly reliant on the army for maintaining domestic stability.

“They need the army, and they absolutely realize that,” said a Western diplomat who is based in the region and spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a lack of authorization to discuss the subject with the media.

But that relationship has angered many in Lebanon’s Sunni community, which is sympathetic to Syria’s Sunni-led rebellion.

They accuse the army of taking orders from Hezbollah, citing the military’s refusal to stop the group’s fighters from entering Syria and its confrontations with Sunni militants tied to the war next door.

“In the eastern Bekaa area,
the LAF is playing a direct support role for Hezbollah operations, and, for example, they will deploy to areas that Hezbollah has cleared and then set up checkpoints,” said Tony Badran,
a Middle East analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A divisive offer

So far, Iran’s military aid has not materialized. There also had been frustration over the perceived delay in implementing the $3 billion Saudi-French deal.

Brig. Gen. Ali Kanso, a spokesman for Lebanon’s military, said the army earlier this year presented a list of desired weapons to Saudi Arabia and France, including tank ammunition, artillery and gear for counterterrorism operations.

Military officials here hope the $3 billion package dovetails with a decade-long overhaul that includes the restructuring, under the guidance of U.S. advisers, of the army’s three special forces units. Kanso denied swirling rumors in Beirut that Washington had warned the military to reject the offer of Iranian arms.

“The only tangible military help we’ve received is from the U.S. and Britain,” he said during an interview last week, adding that Lebanon’s military has thus far received merely “words and more words” from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Iranian offer has been especially divisive among Lebanese politicians.

During a visit to Tehran last month, Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel’s delegation declined to formally respond to Iran’s offer because of concern that accepting it could violate a 2007 U.N. Security Council resolution restricting that nation’s arms trade, said a senior Lebanese diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a lack of authorization to discuss the subject with the media.

Riyadh’s allies in Lebanon suspect that the Iranian weapons could be destined for Hezbollah. Some of them also suspect that Tehran is more concerned with countering Saudi Arabia’s influence than helping the Lebanese military.

“Clearly, it’s a public-relations stunt,” said a politician who was a senior official in the Saad Hariri government, which collapsed in 2011.

Hariri, who lives in exile in Paris, has strong ties to Riyadh and played a key role in encouraging King Abdullah to pledge the initial $3 billion. He also was “personally” tasked with distributing the other $1 billion from Riyadh to Lebanon’s military and security agencies, said the former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

The role of Hariri, who holds no official government position, in what amounts to affairs of the state has raised eyebrows among Iran’s allies in Lebanon.

Hezbollah officials are critical of this, as well as Hariri allies’ opposition to the offer of Iranian weapons.

A Hezbollah lawmaker rejected that stance, saying last month that it was “not objective to refuse” or “complain about” arms from Tehran offered in a “smooth, practical manner,” the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper reported.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.