Cuts to US aid will affect support to Lebanese army

Sunday 25/06/2017
Tightening the screws. Lebanese army officer stands near a missile delivered by the United States during a ceremony at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, last December. (AP)

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.