Incoherent views hamper clear US policy on Hezbollah

he people of Lebanon should be concerned about how Hezbollah’s actions.
Sunday 04/03/2018
 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reads notes as he waits to meet with the Lebanese president at the presidential palace in Baadba on the outskirts of Beirut, on February 15. (AFP)
Mixed messages. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reads notes as he waits to meet with the Lebanese president at the presidential palace in Baadba on the outskirts of Beirut, on February 15. (AFP)

In recent visits to Lebanon, US State Department officials have reiterated support for Lebanese political and military institutions, despite Washington’s wider escalation in its conflict with Iran. Appointments at the State Department could, nonetheless, account for a bolder American stance on Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit contained a double message for Lebanon. While stressing that Washington remained committed to supporting the Lebanese Army and internal security forces, Tillerson warned that “Hezbollah is not just a concern for the United States. The people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hezbollah’s actions and its growing arsenal bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon.”

The Trump administration has been escalating its tone on Iran and its regional proxies. In February, the US Treasury Department targeted six people and seven businesses in Lebanon, Iraq and West Africa, with sanctions believed to be the first in a series of actions targeting Hezbollah’s licit and illicit financial networks.

The US administration’s targeting of Hezbollah is focused on its financing arm. “There were reports that Iran was financing its proxies in Syria via Lebanese banks that operate in Iraq and Syria. There will be more pressure to curb such activity. In addition, geographical driven sanctions targeting Hezbollah areas are also under discussion,” former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi said.

His opinion is shared by Ahmad Majidyar, a fellow at the Middle East Institute think-tank in Washington, who noted that “there is a lot of focus on isolating Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

The newsletter Syrian Digest stated that legislation was introduced by two Republican members of the US Congress requiring a presidential determination on Hezbollah that could designate it as a foreign narcotics trafficker or a transnational criminal organisation.

The US war on Hezbollah has been limited, however, by the White House’s incoherent Middle East policy. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said Trump’s policy is based on several key principles, including keeping the United States out of avoidable conflicts and restricting the use of force to instances when it is necessary. When force is deemed necessary, Trump has resolved to use overwhelming power.

“This means that, in fact, Trump’s Middle East policy looks surprisingly similar to that of former President Barack Obama,” Ibish said.

Obama’s critics said his disengagement in the Middle East led to a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq along with the Islamic State (ISIS) and that his conciliatory foreign policy, specifically on Syria and foreign militias fighting in Syria — such as Hezbollah — allowed for the return of Russian influence in the region and created a power vacuum that benefited Iran.

Obscuring the issue is the division of power within the US system and even within the executive branch of the White House, the State Department and the Department of Defence. “This is complicating the emergence of a coherent foreign policy, especially for the Trump administration,” said Ibish.

Another challenge, Majidyar said, is the two schools of thought that prevail in Washington: One recommends tougher sanctions on Beirut and another does not want to see Lebanon fail.

“[Acting Assistant Secretary of State] David Satterfield was known for adopting more lenient positions on Lebanon. He intervened personally during the November crisis triggered by the resignation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as he is primarily concerned with Lebanon’s stability,” said Barabandi.

New appointments at the State Department could translate into a more aggressive policy on Iran and Hezbollah. David Schenker, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is widely believed to be Trump’s nominee to replace Satterfield as assistant secretary of state, takes a harder line on Hezbollah.

Barabandi pointed out that most appointees in key State Department positions responsible for the Levant file are known for their more hawkish positions on Iran and, consequently, on Hezbollah.

Whether or not their views translate into policies hinges on the multiple power centres in Washington and the Trump administration agreeing on a unified vision.