(June 23, 2019 / JNS) Some U.S. congressmen are upping the pressure on Lebanon to cut its connections with Hezbollah after years of U.S. policy that has neglected the issue.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) introduced the Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act of 2019 on Tuesday, which would withhold 20 percent of U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) unless U.S. President Donald Trump can certify that steps are being taken to end Hezbollah and Iran’s influence over the LAF.
Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS that the new bill aimed at limiting Hezbollah’s influence on the country’s army builds on Cruz’s leadership in the last National Defense Authorization Act, when he introduced a reporting requirement on U.S. assistance to the LAF.
“Apparently, Cruz did not like what he read in the report, as he and his colleagues are now capping aid to the LAF and moving to deepen accountability,” said Badran.
That the four legislators are returning the conversation to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and its requirement for disarming Hezbollah is important, he said.
“Since the Obama years, the U.S. has effectively written Hezbollah out of that resolution and made it about fighting Sunni terrorism instead,” explained Badran. “This aims to return U.S. aid to the LAF back to its original purpose: disarming Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah has an outsized role in Lebanon due to its military might, which it has leveraged to penetrate the country’s government. It took over the Lebanese Health Ministry this year, marking the first time the organization has been in control of a ministry with a budget, Reuters reported. Hezbollah and its political allies from across Lebanon’s sectarian spectrum now control more than half the cabinet’s 30 seats.
‘To make a distinction is a mistake’
Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel, told JNS, “I thought that U.S. and French support for the Lebanese army was a mistake since the dominant force in Lebanon is Hezbollah.”
“A significant part of the country’s army is based on Shi’ite recruits that have close cooperation with Hezbollah,” said Shay, a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC in Herzliya, Israel.
During the seven years of the Syrian civil war, when Islamic State and Nusra Front fought along the Syrian-Lebanese border, the Lebanese army and Hezbollah operated together.
“To make a distinction is a mistake,” said Shay. “As long as Hezbollah is the main armed militia in Lebanon, and remains much stronger and better equipped than the country’s army, I don’t think it is a good idea for any foreign countries to support the Lebanese military.”
Asked about recent efforts in Congress to restrict U.S. military aid to the Lebanese military, the Israeli expert responded that this would be the correct approach.
“Even in the Arab world, Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization, so the correct policy would be to increase the pressure on the group’s financial sources, such as its international drug-smuggling network,” continued Shay.
In addition, he said, the pressure that the Trump administration is putting on Iran could reduce some of Iran’s financial support to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently threatened that if something happened to Iran in the Gulf, then Hezbollah would be part of the Iranian response.
“If you look at Iranian behavior in the last month, they are already practically conducting an attrition war with proxies,” said Shay, pointing out that escalating attacks such as those by the Houthis in Yemen against Saudi Arabia and bombings against oil tankers are meant to send a clear message to America.
In an article last year titled “Lebanese General Bids to Circumvent Congress,” Badran discussed a visit to Washington at the time by LAF Gen. Joseph Aoun in order to ensure continued U.S. military support. Aoun’s visit came weeks after Cruz introduced the reporting requirement to the NDAA. Badran wrote that the visit by Aoun was likely meant to ward off any threat to the aid.
UNSCR 1701 came after Israel’s 2006 summer war with Hezbollah and called for the group to disarm, but the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama “wrote Hezbollah out of UNSCR 1701,” said Badran.
This effort to ignore Hezbollah, wrote Badran, continues in the Trump administration, particularly in the State Department.