US maintains military aid to Lebanon despite Hezbollah’s gains

Irrespective of Hezbollah’s domestic entanglements, it seems unlikely that Tehran’s principal ally in Lebanon will escape Washington's attention entirely.
Sunday 24/02/2019
US soldiers unload military equipment destined for the Lebanese Army at Beirut airport, February 13. (American Embassy in Lebanon)
Long-term strategy. US soldiers unload military equipment destined for the Lebanese Army at Beirut airport, February 13. (American Embassy in Lebanon)

TUNIS - Despite US concerns about Hezbollah taking control of Lebanon’s Health Ministry, indications point to the United States and its Western allies maintaining their traditional support of the Lebanese government while denouncing Hezbollah’s role in it.

American concern largely rested on Hezbollah’s control of the Health Ministry in the new Beirut government, the only portfolio with its own budget, which raises the potential of funds being diverted to non-ministry ends or allowing Hezbollah to ease the effects of US sanctions against it.

Following a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a staunch opponent of Hezbollah, US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said: “I was also very frank with the prime minister about US concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organisation that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government.”

She said Hezbollah continued to make its own “national security decisions,” referring to the group’s deployment in Syria, suggesting that Hezbollah’s support for the Damascus regime endangers the rest of the country.

Prior to Richard’s criticism of Hezbollah, the United States delivered $16 million worth of weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Analysts suggested the transfer indicates Washington’s support for the Lebanese state, irrespective of Hezbollah’s participation in it.

“Ultimately, what does the US want? Hezbollah won’t disappear overnight and the only available options are a civil war or a long-term strategy to support Lebanese state institutions,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “The rationale of this strategy is to have a capable Lebanese army, so that, when Iran halts its support or decreases it, the Lebanese military could contain the militant organisation and establish a monopoly over violence.”

Hezbollah is highly interested in a public relations victory at the Health Ministry through a plan to widen public health services. The party is increasing its government role to appease its dissatisfied support base in the impoverished Bekaa Valley.

“Hezbollah’s control of the Health Ministry will subject it to more public scrutiny,” Ali said. “It’s going to be very difficult for [it] to divert funds away from its intended purpose without it being flagged.

“Politically, for Hezbollah, that would be a disaster. Instead, given the political and public pressure, the party will focus its efforts to showcase their ‘exemplary’ model in governance. [It has] raised the bar quite a bit and it will be a difficult challenge,” Ali said.

Running the Health Ministry might prove to be more difficult than the Syrian conflict. Irrespective of Hezbollah’s domestic entanglements, it seems unlikely that Tehran’s principal ally in Lebanon will escape Washington's attention entirely.

“The Trump administration will likely be looking for ways to continue ratcheting up pressure on Hezbollah as part of its maximum pressure campaign against Iran,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Centre for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, “particularly as it focuses on Iran’s reach into the broader region.

“And, of course, Hezbollah is a top concern for Israel as it worries about Iranian long-term influence in the country as the civil war winds down. So that puts Hezbollah high on the American list of concerns over Iran.”

Regional considerations will likely override concerns in Washington about Hezbollah’s domestic manoeuvring in shaping US policy towards the Lebanese government and its armed forces.

“Many US policymakers, and certainly the US military, understand that the LAF is an important partner in maintaining stability and countering extremists,” Kaye said, “particularly in the post-[Islamic State] era [during which] we can expect many fighters to return to their home countries. The LAF can’t be expected to fight Hezbollah, because that’s a political battle in Lebanon, but it can serve as an important counter to Hezbollah and an example of a non-sectarian player supported by all groups in the country.”

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