BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Russia has offered to give Lebanon a free arsenal of weapons, including helicopter gunships and tanks, amid U.S. unease about providing arms to a country on Israel's doorstep in which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is the most powerful force.
The Russian move probably has more to do with Moscow's drive to restore the influence it had in the Middle East during the Soviet era than with shoring up the Western-backed Beirut government.
The offer of six Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, 31 T-72 tanks built by Uralvagonsavod, 36 130mm artillery guns and 500,000 rounds of ammunition is unlikely to significantly change the balance of power between state forces and Hezbollah.
Even with these vintage Cold War weapons, the army's ability to go up against Israel's military, despite its largely dismal performance against Hezbollah in the 2006 war, remains just above suicidal.
The Russian offer was made during a two-day visit to Moscow last week by Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, as he flitted around the globe seeking support for his crippled unity government amid fears the country faces another bout of sectarian conflict.
The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, has threatened to take action if it is indicted by a special U.N. tribunal tasked to prosecute suspects in the Feb.14, 2005, assassination of Hariri's father, Rafik.
The slaying of Hariri, Lebanon's top statesman and five times prime minister, was initially blamed on Syria. But U.N. investigators reportedly now believe members of Hezbollah were behind it.
The U.S. Congress cut off military aid worth $100 million to Lebanon in August after its troops clashed with Israel on Lebanon's southern border, killing a colonel -- the first skirmish between the two forces in decades.
That raised concerns Hezbollah had infiltrated the 56,000-strong military and pushed it into supporting the party's strategy of confrontation.
The Lebanese army is considered to be the only remaining national state institution. That view gained credence in 2007 when it crushed an insurgency by Islamist militants in three months of urban battles in a Palestinian refugee camp near the northern port of Tripoli.
But there have been other signs that sections of the military have colluded with Hezbollah.
During the 2006 war, army officers are widely believed to have helped Hezbollah hit -- and nearly sink -- an Israeli navy corvette off the Lebanese coast with an Iranian-supplied anti-ship missile by using military radars. A passing freighter was sunk by another missile.
When Hezbollah forces took over Sunni Muslim West Beirut in May 2008 after the government sought to shut down the party's private communications system, the army stood aside during several days of gun battles.
Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut, estimates "some 60 percent of the army's rank and file is Shiite, and most of the military commanders are either Shiite or Maronite Christians loyal to Gen. Michael Aoun," the former army commander allied with Hezbollah against Hariri and his political allies.
"The army doesn't listen to Prime Minister Hariri or to President Michel Suleiman," he said.
The U.S. Congress has restored military aid to Lebanon, largely at the urging of the White House, which supports Hariri and wants to keep Lebanon out of the clutches of Hezbollah and Iran if only to help protect Israel.
Since 2005, when U.S. military support for Beirut stepped up as Syria withdrew its forces amid an international outcry over the Hariri assassination, the Pentagon has provided helicopters, light weapons, Vietnam-era UH-1H Huey helicopters, vehicles and ammunition worth $720 million.
But this has done little to encourage the military to stand up to Hezbollah or to use its arms to defend the Western-backed government that has been paralyzed for months and is now on its last legs.
So the infusion of Russian arms, which are not compatible with the U.S. equipment the Lebanese have, is unlikely to make much of a difference to the current stand-off.
The T-72 tanks are old and no match for Israel's forces or even Hezbollah's anti-tank teams who gave the Israelis a bloody nose in 2006.
The Lebanese air force consists mainly of aging Bell Hueys, French-built Aerospatiale SA-330 Puma and SA-316/318 Alouette helicopters, many of which are grounded.
Its only combat aircraft is a single Hawker Hunter Mk 9, a British-built 1950s-era jet.