Cuts to US aid will affect support to Lebanese army
Beirut- The US State Department is proposing drastic funding cuts to Lebanon in the 2018 foreign aid budget, including a cessation of military spending on the Lebanese Army, a move that portends a tougher approach by the Trump administration towards Lebanon.
The cancellation of the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme to Lebanon for 2018 signifies a sharp reversal of Washington’s steady support for the Lebanese Army since 2005 in which more than $1.4 billion has been spent on weapons, equipment and training. Lebanon, per person, is the world’s fifth largest recipient of US military assistance.
The State Department’s proposed financial aid to Lebanon is being slashed from $213.4 million in 2016 to $103.8 million for 2018. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is also being hit by budget cuts, with the US contribution to the peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon falling from $222.8 million in 2016 to $149 million for 2018.
Significantly, the budgets of other UN missions in the Middle East remain much the same, suggesting that UNIFIL has been singled out for cuts. UNIFIL is often accused by Israel of failing to curb the alleged activities of Hezbollah in the southern border district.
Analysts in Washington cautioned that the draft budget is unlikely to be adopted by Congress as it stands and that substantial changes are probable. US President Donald Trump has promised to cut overseas spending and the draft budget appears to have been drawn up with that in mind. However, even if the draft is subsequently revised there are no guarantees that it will include an FMF allocation to Lebanon let alone match the figure of previous years. The FMF for Lebanon in 2016 stood at $85.9 million.
The United States accelerated its support for the Lebanese Army following Syria’s political disengagement from Lebanon in April 2005. That support increased following the 3-month battle in 2007 between the army and the militant Fatah al- Islam group in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The battle displayed the woeful shortcomings of the army in terms of training and equipment.
The capabilities of the Lebanese Army have greatly improved since then with the acquisition of more advanced weaponry and equipment. Two Super Tucano light attack aircraft are to arrive in Lebanon in October with another four to be delivered in 2018. The Lebanese Army is to receive 32 Bradley Mk II fighting vehicles in September, making Lebanon only the third country other than the United States and Saudi Arabia to field them. Funding from the United States and United Kingdom has led to the establishment, training and equipping of four land border regiments that are tasked with protecting Lebanon’s porous frontier with Syria.
However, just to sustain the army’s capabilities, in terms of keeping vehicles and equipment in active service, runs to $40 million a year, said Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Lebanese Army and senior fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The freezing of the FMF package puts at risk the capability to maintain not only existing equipment but also vehicles and aircraft that are to arrive in the coming months.
The Pentagon is believed to be supportive of continued US financial backing of the Lebanese Army. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis is familiar with the Lebanese Army from his time as commander of the US military’s Central Command. The Pentagon also has a $150 million programme to enhance border security for Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia that is expected to remain untouched but that cannot compensate for the loss of the FMF allocation.
There remain compelling reasons to maintain fiscal support for the Lebanese Army but the FMF budget cut comes amid indications that the Trump administration is looking to tighten the screws on Lebanon as a means of tackling Hezbollah. Building up the Lebanese Army was in part intended to serve as a counter-weight to the powerful Hezbollah. Hezbollah has emerged strong than ever in the past decade.
Politically, it is impossible for the Lebanese Army to confront Hezbollah and no Lebanese government would give such an order for fear of tearing the country apart. However, in the Trump era, continuing to fund the Lebanese Army could be construed as throwing good money after bad. Even the counterterrorism justification for supporting the Lebanese Army could be eroded by the imminent defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and the enhanced stability along the Lebanon-Syria border.
The US Congress is to soon unveil a new Hezbollah anti-financing bill that reportedly will significantly ramp up existing legislation and allow for sanctions to be imposed on people and institutions that have dealings with the Iran-backed party. The move provoked jitters in the Lebanese banking sector with fears of capital flight from banks, a drawdown on monthly remittances from Lebanese expatriates and possible isolation from international money markets.
Whether advocates of US support for the Lebanese Army can reverse the State Department’s FMF freeze for Lebanon could indicate to an extent just how hard the Trump administration intends to deal with Lebanon.