During his joint press conference with Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday, President Trump gave expression to the inherent paradox in America’s Lebanon policy. On the one hand, the president voiced appreciation and support for Lebanon and its Armed Forces (LAF) for their supposed “impressive” role in the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda. On the other hand, he had strong words for Hezbollah, calling it a menace to the Lebanese state and the entire region and noting its role in fueling the catastrophe in Syria. Specifically, the president added, the group threatens to start a conflict with Israel, as it continues to increase its arsenal in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
At the same time Hariri is visiting Washington, however, the LAF is taking part in a joint military operation with Hezbollah in northeastern Lebanon, targeting a pocket of Syrian armed groups—including the group formerly known as the Nusra Front—on the Syrian border. Hezbollah, of course, controls the Lebanese government and dictates the operations of its armed forces. Indeed, it was Hezbollah that laid out the battle plans for the current operation in northeastern Lebanon, including what role the LAF would play in it. And it was Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, who announced the impending start of the joint operation with the LAF during a televised appearance a couple of weeks ago.
The Lebanese state, in other words, is worse than a joke. It’s a front. Which is what made Hariri’s comments during the presser about his government’s commitment to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, calling for an end to hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, all the more absurd. After all, it was the LAF that chaperoned Hezbollah and its media tour of the border with Israel — where Hezbollah’s “environmental NGOs” have set up observation posts under UNIFIL’s nose — and which then sent 150 of its officer cadets on a guided tour of Hezbollah’s museum of war with Israel.
One would think, then, that talking up Lebanon’s commitment to UNSCR 1701 may not be the smartest approach when discussing aid to the LAF. The reason why it continues to be done shamelessly is that for the past four years, the Obama administration redefined UNSCR 1701, which was passed in 2006, to fit its regional pro-Iran policy.
Famously, Trump’s predecessor publicly recognized the need to “respect” what he called Iran’s “equities” in Syria. That was a euphemism for Iran’s ability to maintain its bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Obama further signaled his commitment to Iran’s regional interests by sharing intelligence, via the LAF and other Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese security agencies, with Hezbollah, to help it and Iran fend off blowback from its war on the Syrian people in support of Bashar Assad. However, since it is rather impossible to directly partner with a US-designated terrorist group that has American blood on its hands, the Obama administration did the next best thing: strengthen the partnership with Hezbollah’s auxiliary force, the LAF. The LAF was thus promoted to partner in the war on ISIS, despite the fact it sits on the extreme margin of that fight. Moreover, its synergy with Hezbollah and its role in securing Hezbollah’s rear and logistical lines into Syria, was conveniently swept aside altogether, even as its deployment to the eastern Lebanese border was praised.
And here’s where the sleight of hand on UNSCR 1701 happened. As far back as 2014, support to the LAF and its deployment to the eastern border were sold as enabling the Lebanese government to implement the resolution. Only here’s the thing: the resolution had intended for the Lebanese government to exercise its sovereignty on border control so that it may cut off Hezbollah’s illegal smuggling of weapons from Iran and Syria and, eventually disarm it. Such sovereignty, it was hoped, would also assert Lebanon’s independence from the Assad regime, whose troops were pushed out of the country only a year earlier. Instead, the Obama administration made the mandate of UNSCR 1701 about combating “Syria-origin Sunni extremists.” This became the standard language in the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism since 2014. And so, when the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced the sale of a new arms package to the LAF in 2015, including light attack aircraft and laser-guided rockets, it explained that the sale serves US interests by enabling the Lebanese government to “enforce United Nation’s security council resolutions 1559 and 1701.”
However, insofar as the LAF was working hand in hand with Hezbollah — Iran’s “equity” — US support was for its mission against “Sunni terrorism” exclusively. The Obama administration effectively wrote out Hezbollah of UNSCR 1701.
Regrettably, the recently released State Department Country Terrorism report repeats this Obama-era language verbatim. In contrast, it’s clear President Trump was trying to reintroduce the Hezbollah and Iran emphasis. Hence, he underscored that terrorism now means all terrorism, which means Hezbollah. But attempting to fit this anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran language into the policy of support to the LAF is an attempt to square the circle. You could see it also in the president’s revival of the old line about how American assistance can help ensure the LAF “is the only defender” of Lebanon — meaningless folkloric language US policy has been repeating since 2006, and which has now become not only obsolete, but also counterproductive.
It doesn’t work, and it only reinforces a pro-Iranian configuration, partly because the previous administration reconfigured its Lebanon policy to be part of its broader regional policy of realignment with Iran, and partly because Hezbollah controls Lebanon, its strategic orientation, and its security policy and apparatuses. In fact, Hezbollah controls the government of which Hariri is prime minister. The last time he visited Washington as prime minister, in January 2011, Hezbollah and its allies—which include the current president and foreign minister—collapsed his government, and forced him out of the country. He was allowed back in only after he completely capitulated to Hezbollah’s demands.
It was hardly surprising, then, that Hariri had not once mentioned Hezbollah in his remarks. He knows who wields the real power in Beirut. And his function since Hezbollah allowed him back into Lebanon has been to lobby for backing and continued support for the current Hezbollah-dominated political status quo, and to mop up after Hezbollah. So, when asked today about the Lebanese government’s response to new Congressional sanctions targeting Hezbollah, Hariri replied that he’ll be making the rounds on the Hill “in order to reach an understanding with regard to the [sanctions] resolutions coming from Congress.” Reaching an “understanding” is a euphemism for taking it easy on Lebanon. It’s what all of the Lebanese delegations to Washington, headed by Hezbollah allies, have been focused on since news of Congress’s efforts to tighten sanctions came out: we’re in compliance with existing sanctions. Don’t add new sanctions. Do you want to break Lebanon?!?
Hariri played that refrain a little as well, as he underscored his government’s “efforts to safeguard our political and economic stability while combating terrorism” (which, of course, does not refer to Hezbollah). In other words, Lebanon is a partner in the fight against ISIS, so don’t do anything to threaten its fragile political and economic stability.
With that Hariri gave a perfect example of how Lebanon is brandished as a human shield of sorts for Hezbollah in support of the status quo favorable to the party — and to everyone who partakes in it, Hariri included. The same applies to the LAF policy. For what role will the LAF play if not that of a human shield for Hezbollah when the next conflict with Israel erupts? What will the Lebanese government do but rush to the US urging it to preserve its investment in that extraordinary partner in the war against terrorism, and to intervene to stop Israel from destroying the Lebanese state. After all, who but Hezbollah would benefit from that? Cui bono, America?
Of course, all that makes sense for Hariri and the Lebanese political class and for their political careers, and perhaps for Hariri’s ambition to get in on any prospective “reconstruction” action in Syria — that is, if Iran’s and Hezbollah’s Construction Jihad let him have a cut. But none of that makes any sense for the US. Rather, it all becomes a vehicle for the perpetuation and consolidation of Obama’s deliberately pro-Iran policy.
“America is proud to support those who have the courage to stand up to terrorism,” president Trump said on Tuesday. But if terrorism includes Hezbollah, which the president made clear it does, then by definition the Lebanese state and the LAF should be excluded from that list.
Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.