The day after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with President Trump at the White House, a member of his delegation saluted Hezbollah on social media from Washington. Last Wednesday, former minister and current adviser to the Lebanese president (a Hezbollah ally), Elias Bou Saab, tweeted a salute to “every resister”—a euphemism for Hezbollah fighter—and “every soldier” fighting in the outback of the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal, on the border with Syria. Later that same day, Bou Saab, who is the executive vice president of the American University in Dubai, and is widely seen in Lebanon as a sympathizer of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, posed for a picture with a journalist from the pro-Hezbollah TV channel NBN. The journalist posted the photo on her Facebook page. It shows Bou Saab and the journalist on a street in Washington, holding a placard with another salute to Hezbollah. It reads: “From the outback of Washington, a salute to the heroes in the outback of Arsal.”
Bou Saab’s boss, Hariri, was only slightly more reserved in his public alliance with the Lebanese terror army—aka “the resistance.” After his press conference with President Trump, in which the U.S. president described Hezbollah as a regional menace and long arm of Iran, the prime minister told Lebanese reporters, “We fight ISIS and al-Qaida. Hezbollah is in the government and part of parliament and we have an understanding with it.”
An understanding with Hezbollah sounds about right. Hariri’s visit with Trump was part of a coordinated, multifaceted information campaign to swindle the U.S. government into continuing its military support and extending political cover for the evolving pro-Iran order in Lebanon and Syria. Everyone—Hariri, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and its supporters and publicists in Washington—is in on the con. Everyone benefits—except, of course, the people who continue to suffer and die in the region.
Let’s trace back the timeline of the Hariri-Hezbollah campaign, whose primary aim was apparently to game Donald Trump and his generals. At the end of June, the LAF raided a Syrian refugee camp in the Arsal region in northeastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border. The raid was accompanied by a large, coordinated PR effort to whip up patriotic fervor, in which Syrian refugees were used as props. A few days later, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah emerged with a televised address in which he announced the imminent start of the battle around Arsal. A few days after that, military operations begin, with Hezbollah receiving air support from the Assad regime on the Syrian side and artillery support from the LAF on the Lebanese side, demonstrating the high level of coordination between these two forces, which are fast becoming one under Iranian leadership.
The timing of this operation—or demonstration—was hardly accidental, either: Hariri was making his pitch in Washington for continued support to Lebanon and the LAF, and for watering down U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah.
The second act of the Lebanese con game began while the Hariri delegation was still in Washington. The Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, a close Hezbollah ally who accompanied Hariri, tweeted the LAF’s next move from Washington: Attack the second pocket held by a so-called ISIS affiliate outside Ras Baalbeck, north of Arsal. In an interview in Washington, Hariri explained how, “the army is going to take over the whole thing, and Hezbollah is going to withdraw, because the fighting is going to continue with ISIS, and we believe this is the real battle.” In other words, Washington was supposed to see that, Hezbollah’s joint operation with the LAF in Arsal notwithstanding, ISIS is the real enemy—and it’s the LAF that will handle this next, crucial battle. The LAF should, therefore, receive more U.S. money and weapons, regardless of its political obedience to a terrorist group with the blood of hundreds of Americans on its hands.
By the time Hariri’s interview came out, the brief operation in Arsal had already ended—with a negotiated settlement with the group formerly known as the Nusra Front. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, a Hezbollah ally who heads Lebanon’s General Security, handled the negotiations. The Nusra fighters received safe passage out of the area to Idlib province and exchanged prisoners and bodies with Hezbollah.
That Hezbollah’s show focused only on the Nusra pocket near Arsal and avoided the second, ISIS-held pocket farther north was by design. The strategy here was not directed at either of these groups, but at Washington. The Nusra pocket had been involved in these negotiations for a while, but Hezbollah forced the issue—early in the operation, a mediator, a local municipal official from Arsal, was targeted in his car and killed, with some accusing Hezbollah of the murder—at this precise moment, in order to set up a binary choice for Hariri to present in Washington: the LAF vs. ISIS.
No sooner had Hariri wrapped up his visit than the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington put out a report on why, because of this supposed looming battle with ISIS, the United States should continue, even increase, its support for the LAF. Tying a neat ribbon on the Lebanese information campaign, the report, written by a promoter of the pro-LAF policy who works closely with the LAF command, completed Hariri’s pitch: Supporting the LAF is not just necessary because the LAF will soon fight ISIS, but also because Hezbollah otherwise would win the so-called battle of narratives with the Lebanese state, which it, in fact, controls. It’s a spectacular con.
But the people who run Lebanon these days are hardly smart or creative enough to dream up something that twisted and inventive on their own. They are reading from the script written by former President Barack Obama and his adviser Robert Malley as they realigned U.S. regional policy with Iran. Knowing that a flat-out alliance with Iran would never fly with American voters and the U.S. Congress, Obama tethered his pro-Iran policy to the campaign against ISIS and Sunni extremism—which everyone could agree were bad. Since Obama couldn’t partner directly with Hezbollah and the IRGC, he needed the LAF to serve as cover. “Fighting ISIS” was the guise and the LAF was the conduit for a pro-Iran policy.
The continuation of Obama’s regional policy means that the LAF is now a suitable screen for everyone involved, including Hezbollah and Hariri—to say nothing of the LAF itself—to benefit from American largesse while the implementers of the pro-Iran re-alignment policy—like Brett McGurk—continue their work under Trump. The LAF is the conduit, and the stage is its supposed confrontation with ISIS. To be sure, however, this theatrical production with the LAF also has an ongoing negotiation channel with ISIS.
For its own part, Hezbollah wants to strengthen its military and political control of vast territories of Lebanon and Syria by clearing the last patch of the border between its Lebanese and Syrian holdings. It also wants to strengthen overt, official coordination between the Lebanese government and the Assad regime—something it already initiated in the Arsal operation, through the participation of the Syrian regime’s air force and through the negotiations for Nusra’s evacuation.
The point of these maneuvers is hardly a secret inside Lebanon. As the Arsal operation concluded, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar ran the headline: “The [Arsal] Outback Agreement: Security coordination with Damascus, with political cover.” The article went on to say that the deal’s implication was that “security coordination with the regime of President Bashar Assad is inevitable, regardless of any political objection.”
Hariri has raised objections to overt coordination with Assad even as he angles to get in on the Syrian reconstruction racket. But if Hezbollah and its allies are going to have their way anyway, the Lebanese Prime Minister figures he might as well rope in Washington to get American cover, or at least the semblance thereof. Perhaps the Americans will provide a buffer against Hezbollah, while also buying them off. But that’s more of a wistful, wishful thought, spoken out loud to make himself and perhaps the Americans feel better than a likelihood, or even a reasonable possibility. In other words, it’s part of the con.
The Lebanese are playing up the idea of an LAF-ISIS showdown to get the Americans to pay up. But Lebanon is not only roping us in to become complicit in their potential coordination with Assad. It’s a lot worse than that. As the CSIS report advocates, the Lebanese are out to leverage U.S. political and military power, including the presence of U.S. Special Operations personnel in Lebanon—even raising all kinds of propositions, including that the LAF request direct U.S. military involvement on their side. Otherwise, the pitch goes, both ISIS and Hezbollah will win! And that would be America’s fault, of course.
The ramifications of the Lebanese con game are as serious as they are vile, even aside from continuing the Obama-era redefining of the purpose of the aid, and re-writing UNSCR 1701 in support of a pro-Iran power configuration in Lebanon. The Lebanese are now asking the United States and the United Kingdom to increase their investment in Lebanon and to deploy more assets in the border area, effectively turning the U.S. military into the guardians of Iran’s logistical routes between its Lebanese and Syrian territories.
The Lebanese Big Con obviously also threatens Israel. Eastern Lebanon is the area through which Iran brings in arms to Hezbollah. As Hezbollah and the IRGC have dug in on both sides of the Lebanon-Syria border, turning a lot of the Syrian side into military positions, the area now serves as strategic depth for the group in any future war with Israel—and will most likely be another theater of war. As I noted last week, the Lebanese are leveraging U.S. investment in the LAF to constrain Israel in any future conflict: If Israel returns fire, it will be destroying military infrastructure and weapons paid for by the United States. Asking for the United States to increase its own direct deployment in Lebanon turns American servicemen into human shields to deter Israel.
The bottom line is simple: The Lebanese government, Hezbollah, and the LAF are running a con game together, and America is the mark.
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