US Congress keeps eyes on Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanese Armed Forces
WASHINGTON - Following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and after Hezbollah’s strong showing in Lebanese parliamentary elections, the US Congress renewed its focus on the Lebanon-based Shia group Hezbollah and its degree of influence, if not outright control over the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
The US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa had a hearing May 22 to assess how US interests would be affected by the Lebanese elections. Not surprisingly, the conversation focused on Hezbollah, a group on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations, and its close ties to Iran. Both Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee expressed concerns that Hezbollah’s success in the Lebanese vote further deepened Iran’s position in Lebanon.
US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who is chairwoman of the subcommittee, said she has “long been concerned over reports about LAF-Hezbollah cooperation and US commitment to the LAF.” She noted that US law prohibited the United States from supporting the LAF if it was demonstrated that it was “controlled by a US-designated foreign terrorist organisation.”
Ros-Lehtinen called on the Trump administration to “take a clear-eyed support to the LAF and reassess our security assistance.”
Ros-Lehtinen challenged the argument that the LAF offers the only serious counterweight to Hezbollah in Lebanon and should continue to receive US backing. “After years of cooperation,” she said, “there is zero evidence that this policy is working.”
“There is no doubt that weakening Hezbollah should be US policy” in Lebanon, Ros-Lehtinen concluded.
She criticised the Trump administration for cancelling democracy-promotion programmes and activities in Lebanon that she argued could have increased support for “moderate” forces in the elections and perhaps prevented “Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, from consolidating control.”
Danielle Pletka, senior vice-president at the American Enterprise Institute and a harsh critic of Iran and Hezbollah, echoed Ros-Lehtinen’s concerns in her presentation to the subcommittee. Pletka offered evidence that the LAF and Hezbollah regularly coordinate and quoted Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as describing the LAF as a “partner” and a “pillar” in what Hezbollah has described as the “golden formula, which means the resistance, the army and the people.”
Pletka asked: “Is it not inappropriate to worry that the government of Lebanon is effectively itself becoming a proxy of Iran?”
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, a Washington think-tank, offered a different view, saying the elections in Lebanon produced “ambiguous results amid very dynamic politics.”
Instead of describing the election outcome as a Hezbollah victory, Wittes said, it was more accurate to say that “Hezbollah ‘won’ the game of Lebanese politics for now, because in Lebanon no victory is ever final.”
She concluded that “the greatest risk for American policy towards Lebanon… would be to embark on blunt-force policies, either by walking away from the fight or by squeezing [Lebanon] into unwelcome crisis.” To do so, she suggested, would only benefit Iran.
The Trump administration does not seem prepared to significantly alter its policy towards the LAF. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, answering questions after his speech announcing the administration’s stringent demands on Tehran, said the United States would continue to support Lebanon and the LAF, which he called “one of the few stable institutions” in the country.
He added, however, that the Departments of State and Defence would closely monitor how the Lebanese government spends US assistance funds.
US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US military’s Central Command, in February told a congressional committee that “our effort to strengthen the Lebanese security forces, especially the LAF, as the country’s only legitimate security provider is a critical aspect of our policy to promote Lebanese sovereignty and security.”
He added that “we are confident the LAF has not transferred equipment to Hezbollah” but warned that “we are concerned about Hezbollah’s efforts to infiltrate Lebanon’s security institutions and have made clear that any cooperation with Hezbollah will risk our continued cooperation and assistance.”
In another sign of continued US backing for the LAF, sources in Washington reported that four A-29 Toscano light attack aircraft would be delivered to the LAF in June, as scheduled.
Congress, however, has no intention of staying on the sidelines of US policy towards Lebanon.
In the recently passed National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2019, the House Armed Services Committee added a requirement that the president submit to Congress within 90 days a report providing “an accounting of [Hezbollah’s] known rocket arsenal, an evaluation of the impact of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), an evaluation of [Hezbollah’s] capabilities, a description of routes used by [Hezbollah] to procure weapons illegally, an estimate of entities that support [Hezbollah’s] network, an assessment of [its] involvement in regional conflicts and an assessment of [its] fundraising in territories where UNIFIL operates.”