The United States is planning to build a 93,000 square foot embassy complex in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. It is estimated to cost $1 billion with a hospital, arts center, swimming pool, residential towers, and data collection center for US intelligence officials. The Foreign Desk sat down with Dr. Walid Phares, foreign policy expert, co-secretary general of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group, and author of 14 foreign policy best sellers, including his most recent, Iran: An Imperialist Republic and U.S. Policy.
The Foreign Desk: What do you make of this news?
Dr. Walid Phares: The new regional US hub in the Middle East, embedded in the new complex of the US embassy in Lebanon, has gotten lots of attention in the region, but mostly inside Lebanon. Many in the public call it “the fortress” because of its position, infrastructure and location, as well as the gigantic budget invested. There is a hidden strategic dimension to the new embassy complex in Beirut’ northern suburb, not available in any other capital of countries where terror threat, particularly Iranian, is prevalent. It is the location; The massive hub, with the size almost of a military base, is located within the heart of a strong anti-Hezbollah segment of Beirut. The density of the buildings inhabited by friendly Christian population surrounding it, makes it almost impossible for Islamist militias to thrust into the area. Knowing that aside from the Lebanese Army the northern suburbs of Beirut may mobilize close to 10,000 fighters in case of attempts by the Iranian backed militia to attack the premises through the streets. Hezbollah would need to invade and occupy a whole stubborn city. Last year the militia attempted to march through another Christian suburb, Ain Remmaneh, but was repelled with casualties. Besides, the US has a small presence at the Hamat airfield on the coast of northern Lebanon, linked by an express highway to the embassy in the capital. Should any serious danger occur, the US embassy and the airfield are surrounded by mountains and close to a million Christians forming a defensive belt around the American installations. Add to it that a wider circle around the belt, is home to Sunnis and Druze who have resisted the Iranian militias throughout the years. The choice is smart, but the question now is about policy. Washington has built very powerful embassies around the world and in the region, but strategic mistakes have led to the shutting down of such fortresses, which were later taken by foes.
TFD: What do you make of the fact that the newly constructed complex will cost around $1 billion and contain a hospital, arts center, swimming pool, residential towers, and data collection center for US intelligence officials?
WP: The US intelligence community needs a center like this in the region, especially to monitor and address menaces from the Iran regime and its militias but also from Jihadists. Its unique positioning on the Mediterranean coast, and its direct communication with US Navy makes a very secure hub for CIA, DIA and other agencies to operate from a strategically favorable location. Hence the cost, the infrastructure and capacity are all advantages to the teams to be based near Beirut. Add also the capacity for these and other agencies to recruit staffers, paid volunteers and talents directly from the population surrounding it. This will have a much better ratio of local support than in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, or eventually Libya, where radical networks will be planning actions against American interests. The intel community is somewhat lucky to enjoy such a unique position in the Middle East, in view of its needs to keep an eye on a variety of foes embedded around the region from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of Pakistan. Also remember that the US will have an advanced base for extraction of friends in the region, as a bridge to US and NATO centers in Europe.
TFD: What do you make of the American intelligence officials’ hope that this new project will strengthen intelligence sharing partnership with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence unit?
WP: The Lebanese Army was since the 1980s and should have remained a traditional US and Western ally. It has received significant support over the years from the Pentagon’s various programs. The bilateral military relations are smooth and Washington’s defense and military agencies regularly receive Lebanese officers, including from the LAF intel branch, for training and seminars. I have had many Lebanese militaries in my classrooms at NDU, Intel University and in seminars at CENTOM in Tampa. There is a regular cooperation between the two bodies. However one need to understand that since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the old Lebanese Army is no more, instead you have a force that is well disciplined and well kept, but receives orders from a Hezbollah controlled government in Lebanon. Its intelligence cooperated with the US against al Qaeda and ISIS, but never against Hezbollah. Like the Iraqi army and intelligence the Lebanese agencies share some but not all info with their American colleagues. Remember that while the sentiments of most regular Lebanese troops are unfriendly with Iran, a large segment of its intel and CT network do work with the pro-Iranian and pro Assad operatives. The Pentagon is probably “satisfied” with such status, but not many members of Congress, because frankly no one knows who exactly is profiting more from this strange relationship. The LAF hit with force against the Jihadists but considers Hezbollah as a resistance movement, coordinates with the Syrian army and intel, and more importantly to the American public, considers Israel as “an enemy” in its official military doctrine. This file is yet to be debated between Congress and the executive branch.
TFD: What do you think will be the reaction from the Islamic Republic in Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah to the newly created intelligence center?
WP: Obviously Hezbollah, other militias and the two regimes in Damascus and Iran considers the US as an enemy, and would patiently and eventually want to close that intel hub. But they want to use US presence in Lebanon to get a maximum profit, including via the Lebanese Army, to their supporters. However, the “axis” knows all too well that the US intel hub is not their friend, and will be the center for any planification against their interest, exactly as they consider the most modest intel centers In Iraqi Kurdistan and on a smaller scale in East Syria. As a projection in the future, the “Awkar Intel Hub” is a formidable asset in US advantage. The community knows well how to maximize its work and has chosen location and structures the best possible. My concern is that a political decision at home may crumble at one point all these advantages. That’s why the community and the Pentagon must advise the White House to widen the Hamat airfield base in northern Lebanon, into a powerful US airbase to support Awkar, when times become tougher. And they will.