Hezbollah defiance on Israel border undermines Lebanon Army

Sunday 30/04/2017
Testing the state. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) escorted by his bodyguards upon his arrival at the UN peacekeepers headquarters at the coastal border town of Naqoura, on April 21. (AP)

Beiut- Against a backdrop of ris­ing tensions between Is­rael and Hezbollah that some fear could lead to war, General Joseph Aoun, commander of the Lebanese Army, is expected to head to Wash­ington for talks with Pentagon offi­cials about US military assistance for his forces.

Aoun’s visit, his first to Wash­ington since being appointed army commander in March, comes at a critical moment in the relationship under which the United States has provided the Lebanese Army with weapons and equipment worth more than $1 billion since 2006, supposedly to fight Islamist mili­tants.

Sources in Washington said the Pentagon seemed eager to maintain the military assistance programme but its fate could be complicated by decisions of the administration of US President Donald Trump.

Trump has pledged to slash for­eign aid and roll back Iranian in­fluence in the Middle East, which could impact heavily on Hezbollah and undermine Lebanon’s precari­ous stability.

Recent incidents and statements, such as the appearance of US-made M-113 armoured personnel carri­ers (APCs) in a Hezbollah parade in Lebanon, have led Israel to accuse the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah of collaborating.

There were accusations that Hez­bollah got the ageing APCs from the army, which received them from the United States. The army denied that. The vehicles may have been captured from Israeli-backed militiamen in southern Lebanon in the 1990s.

But since Hezbollah’s Iranian-backed military power, unmistak­ably greater than the army’s, has grown in recent years, largely at the army’s expense, suspicions abound.

Ongoing US military aid to the army has provided further grist to Israel’s warnings that Hezbol­lah’s growing influence in Leba­non means that in the next war between the Jewish state and the Party of God it will treat the entire Lebanese state as the enemy, rather than limit its operations to Hez­bollah alone.

On April 20, Hezbollah organised a media tour of the southern bor­der with Israel that included the brief appearance of several armed and uniformed Hezbollah fighters in what appeared to be a deliber­ate breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that was passed in 2006 to end a 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel. It forbids the presence of non-state weapons in the border region, which is patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL.

Although Hezbollah coordinated its trip with the Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon, it was un­clear whether the army command in Beirut was aware of the tour. UNIFIL sources said the force was informed by the army only 45 min­utes before the tour commenced and that no mention was made that it was being hosted by Hezbollah.

Stung by Hezbollah’s breach of Resolution 1701 and concerned at how its message would be inter­preted regionally and internation­ally, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, accompanied by his minis­ter of defence and the army com­mander, hurried to UNIFIL’s head­quarters in Naqoura the next day to stress that the government has authority on the southern border, not Hezbollah.

“What happened yesterday is something that we, as a govern­ment, are not concerned with and do not accept,” Hariri said. “So I came here to emphasise that our role as a government is to preserve Resolution 1701.”

Hezbollah’s provocative media event, which included showing re­porters Israeli defensive measures, was partly intended to signal defi­ance to Israel at a time of rising ten­sions.

Despite the preparations and widespread concerns that big trou­ble was brewing, Mohammed Afif, head of Hezbollah’s media rela­tions department, said the chances of war breaking out with Israel were low.

“We know that our enemy is well-prepared and well-equipped and well-trained to attack,” he said. “But we know that the resistance is also well-prepared and well-equipped and can defend against any attack by the enemy.”

Another recipient of Hezbollah’s messaging was the Lebanese government and possibly the new army commander who, sources close to the army say, has made it clear he wants to rid the military of political influences.

But Aoun is likely to face some hard questions in Washington, par­ticularly over the nature of the mil­itary’s relationship with Hezbollah, which is widely seen as the real au­thority in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Christian president, former army commander Michel Aoun (no relation to the general) and a political ally of Hezbollah, did little to dispel those concerns when he recently declared that Hezbollah’s weapons “are not in contradiction to the state” — a pronouncement that many feared could impede US military aid.

But, for now, there appears to be no let-up in the US assistance pro­gramme. On April 25, a US military cargo plane landed at a military air­field at Riyaq in the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah’s heartland, in north-eastern Lebanon reportedly to de­liver more weapons and equipment for the Lebanese Army.

It was the second such flight in a week and came as the army pre­pares to deploy a new border regi­ment along a sensitive stretch of Lebanon’s eastern frontier with Syria, replacing Hezbollah fighters who have been guarding the border from infiltration by jihadist mili­tants from Syria.