Tillerson receives mixed reception in Lebanon, wavers on Hezbollah

Tillerson’s comments are reflective of the paradoxes in the continued US funding of the Lebanese state, a body Hezbollah virtually controls.
February 18, 2018
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the governmental palace in Beirut, on February 15. (AFP)
Mixed signals. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the governmental palace in Beirut, on February 15. (AFP)

BEIRUT - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Beirut as part of a Middle East tour intended to shore up American influence in the region and counter Russia’s growing diplomatic weight.

Tillerson is the highest-ranking member of the current US administration to visit Lebanon and the first secretary of state to do so in four years. Tillerson’s visit was meant to defuse tensions between Lebanon and Israel but was overshadowed by comments he made about the role of Hezbollah within Lebanese politics.

During the Middle East tour, Tillerson has wavered between a clear attempt to appease radical pro-Iran party Hezbollah and attacking it as a threat to Lebanon and the region. Addressing a news conference February 14 in Jordan, Tillerson appeared to accept Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, conceding that the United States had to “acknowledge the reality” that Hezbollah was part of the “political process.”

However, Tillerson appeared to reverse his position, telling a news conference in Beirut with pro-Western ally Prime Minister Saad Hariri the next day that the United States did not accept “any distinction” between Hezbollah’s “political and military arms.”

“It is unacceptable for a militia like Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government,” he said. “The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese armed forces.”

Tillerson also suggested the group’s retention of its arms, as well as its activities across the region, undermined Lebanon’s security.

“Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime,” Tillerson said. “Their presence in Iraq and Yemen has also fuelled violence and the consequences of Hezbollah’s involvement in these far-off conflicts, which have nothing to do with Lebanon, are felt here.”

Though apparently greeted warmly by Hariri, Tillerson received a less enthusiastic welcome from Hezbollah’s political allies within Lebanon’s government. Lebanese President Michel Aoun reportedly kept the secretary of state waiting for several minutes and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at first appeared unwilling to be photographed shaking hands with Tillerson, before posing as requested.

The apparent contradiction in Tillerson’s comments is another illustration of the mixed foreign policy signals coming out of Washington. It is also reflective of the paradoxes in the continued US funding of the Lebanese state. Hezbollah virtually controls the reins of power and could win a majority of votes in next June’s legislative elections. The United States has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation since 1997. The United States has also introduced a wide range of sanctions against Hezbollah and those thought to be supporting it.

Tensions have been escalating for some time between Israel and Lebanon with both claiming possession of a gas field on their maritime border. Compounding difficulties have been Israeli plans to construct a border wall that Beirut regards as impinging upon Lebanese territory.

There are more than 750 sq.km of waters disputed by both countries. US officials have attempted to mediate between the two, the most recent effort coming from US Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, who visited the border area in southern Lebanon before joining Tillerson on his trip to the region.

Lebanon put exploration rights on the disputed gas field out to tender, a move characterised by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman as “provocative.”

Israeli plans to construct a border wall have also been met with resistance. Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council issued a statement saying it had “given its instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building (the wall) on Lebanese territory.”

“Let’s get the border agreed first and then people can think about if they need a security wall or not at that point,” Tillerson said.