By Nicholas Blanford - BEIRUT - Article represents view of Author
Recent visits by US civilian and military officials to
Beirut come amid concerns that the administration of US President
Donald Trump could reduce financial assistance to the Lebanese Army,
which is playing a vital role in defending Lebanon against the Islamic
State (ISIS) and other extremist groups. Lebanese
President Michel Aoun caused a diplomatic and political stir in February
when he said the militant Shia Hezbollah, Iran’s most prized proxy
force, was a “complement” to the Lebanese Army in helping defend the
tiny Mediterranean country against Israeli aggression.
comments raised questions in the United States about the continued
funding of a military that is said to collude with what Washington
classifies as a “terrorist” organisation.“Lebanon’s
new president is legitimising Hezbollah’s military role, which is
independent of control by the Lebanese state,” wrote Elliott Abrams,
senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council for Foreign
Relations and former US deputy national security adviser. “If
it is true that LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces)-Hezbollah cooperation is
increasing, the United States should demand that the trend be halted and
reversed,” he wrote.
Aoun’s comments also earned a
retort from the top UN diplomat in Lebanon who said Hezbollah was
required to disarm under UN Security Council resolutions rather than
serve as a defence force for Lebanon. Saudi King
Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was also reported to have postponed a
planned visit to Beirut to protest the comments by Aoun, a Christian who
was backed by Hezbollah to become president. Saudi Arabia is one of several Arab countries that classify Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organisation.
February, US Army General Joseph Votel, the head of the US military’s
Central Command, visited Beirut to discuss the military assistance
programme and the war against ISIS. Several hundred
militants from ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, considered an al-Qaeda
affiliate, are holed up in barren mountains near the town of Arsal in
Lebanon’s north-eastern corner adjacent to the Syrian border.
United States has provided weaponry, including self-propelled 155mm
artillery and missile-firing Cessna reconnaissance aircraft, to help the
Lebanese military keep the armed groups at bay.
was preceded in Beirut by US Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who inspected
front-line army positions around Arsal. He said the United States is
committed to working with the Lebanese Army, which is the fifth largest
recipient of US military assistance — more than $1.4 billion since
However, the country is vulnerable to spillover
from the war in neighbouring Syria and Washington is not alone in
recognising that improving Lebanon’s military capabilities helps
safeguard the country from jihadist groups such as ISIS.
2016, Britain’s then-Defence minister, Philip Hammond, said Lebanon was
Europe’s “first line of defence” against ISIS. Britain has invested
heavily in Lebanon’s military, helping train and equip four new
regiments that are deploying along the Syrian border.
Hezbollah’s presence complicates international goodwill for the
Lebanese Army. The Party of God’s opponents have long questioned the
army’s relationship with the Iran-backed group, the most powerful
non-state player in the region.
In December, Israel
accused the Lebanese Army of supplying weapons directly to Hezbollah and
claimed that Lebanese soldiers and Hezbollah militants jointly patrol
Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.
Israeli security officials asserted that the Lebanese Army,
strengthened by international support, is expected to fight alongside
Hezbollah in the next war with the Jewish state.
reality, Hezbollah’s battle plans have no space for Lebanon’s military.
The army will likely seek to defend its positions in any conflict and
perhaps strike at targets of opportunity but it is not expected to
coordinate with Hezbollah. The relationship between the army and
Hezbollah is subtle and nuanced, with both parties knowing where each
other’s red lines lie.
Lebanon’s army is in no
position, politically or militarily, to forcibly disarm Hezbollah in
accordance with UN resolutions. To do so would trigger serious
Hezbollah is careful not to malign the one state institution that the Lebanese see as a guarantor of civil peace.
is coordination on some levels, particularly between military
intelligence and Hezbollah’s own security apparatus but, on the whole,
they leave each other alone.
Trump has stated that he
wants to slash US overseas financial assistance but there is a good
chance US support for Lebanon’s military will continue uninterrupted —
at least for now.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis is
familiar with the Lebanese Army and its needs from his time as head of
the Central Command and Washington sources say he seeks to maintain the
current level of support.
US security officials are
aware of the political realities of Lebanon and the complex nature of
the army-Hezbollah relationship but, given the Trump administration’s
animus towards Iran, more comments like those made by Aoun linking the
army to Hezbollah will provide grist to those seeking to disrupt US
military assistance to Lebanon.
is the author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year
Struggle Against Israel (Random House 2011). He lives in Beirut.