Aoun’s Hezbollah remarks threaten US military aid
Beirut - Recent visits by US civilian and military officials to Beirut come amid concerns that the administration of US President Donald Trump could reduce financial assistance to the Lebanese Army, which is playing a vital role in defending Lebanon against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist groups.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun caused a diplomatic and political stir in February when he said the militant Shia Hezbollah, Iran’s most prized proxy force, was a “complement” to the Lebanese Army in helping defend the tiny Mediterranean country against Israeli aggression.
Aoun’s comments raised questions in the United States about the continued funding of a military that is said to collude with what Washington classifies as a “terrorist” organisation.
“Lebanon’s new president is legitimising Hezbollah’s military role, which is independent of control by the Lebanese state,” wrote Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations and former US deputy national security adviser.
“If it is true that LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces)-Hezbollah cooperation is increasing, the United States should demand that the trend be halted and reversed,” he wrote.
Aoun’s comments also earned a retort from the top UN diplomat in Lebanon who said Hezbollah was required to disarm under UN Security Council resolutions rather than serve as a defence force for Lebanon.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was also reported to have postponed a planned visit to Beirut to protest the comments by Aoun, a Christian who was backed by Hezbollah to become president.
Saudi Arabia is one of several Arab countries that classify Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organisation.
In February, US Army General Joseph Votel, the head of the US military’s Central Command, visited Beirut to discuss the military assistance programme and the war against ISIS.
Several hundred militants from ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, considered an al-Qaeda affiliate, are holed up in barren mountains near the town of Arsal in Lebanon’s north-eastern corner adjacent to the Syrian border.
The United States has provided weaponry, including self-propelled 155mm artillery and missile-firing Cessna reconnaissance aircraft, to help the Lebanese military keep the armed groups at bay.
Votel was preceded in Beirut by US Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who inspected front-line army positions around Arsal. He said the United States is committed to working with the Lebanese Army, which is the fifth largest recipient of US military assistance — more than $1.4 billion since 2005.
However, the country is vulnerable to spillover from the war in neighbouring Syria and Washington is not alone in recognising that improving Lebanon’s military capabilities helps safeguard the country from jihadist groups such as ISIS.
In 2016, Britain’s then-Defence minister, Philip Hammond, said Lebanon was Europe’s “first line of defence” against ISIS. Britain has invested heavily in Lebanon’s military, helping train and equip four new regiments that are deploying along the Syrian border.
But Hezbollah’s presence complicates international goodwill for the Lebanese Army. The Party of God’s opponents have long questioned the army’s relationship with the Iran-backed group, the most powerful non-state player in the region.
In December, Israel accused the Lebanese Army of supplying weapons directly to Hezbollah and claimed that Lebanese soldiers and Hezbollah militants jointly patrol Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.
More recently, Israeli security officials asserted that the Lebanese Army, strengthened by international support, is expected to fight alongside Hezbollah in the next war with the Jewish state.
In reality, Hezbollah’s battle plans have no space for Lebanon’s military. The army will likely seek to defend its positions in any conflict and perhaps strike at targets of opportunity but it is not expected to coordinate with Hezbollah. The relationship between the army and Hezbollah is subtle and nuanced, with both parties knowing where each other’s red lines lie.
Lebanon’s army is in no position, politically or militarily, to forcibly disarm Hezbollah in accordance with UN resolutions. To do so would trigger serious sectarian violence.
Hezbollah is careful not to malign the one state institution that the Lebanese see as a guarantor of civil peace.
There is coordination on some levels, particularly between military intelligence and Hezbollah’s own security apparatus but, on the whole, they leave each other alone.
Trump has stated that he wants to slash US overseas financial assistance but there is a good chance US support for Lebanon’s military will continue uninterrupted — at least for now.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis is familiar with the Lebanese Army and its needs from his time as head of the Central Command and Washington sources say he seeks to maintain the current level of support.
US security officials are aware of the political realities of Lebanon and the complex nature of the army-Hezbollah relationship but, given the Trump administration’s animus towards Iran, more comments like those made by Aoun linking the army to Hezbollah will provide grist to those seeking to disrupt US military assistance to Lebanon.