Homeland Security

U.S. and Israel Sharply at Odds on Military Aid to Lebanon

February 16, 2018, Lebanon, Beirut: Hezbollah supporters sway flags during a memorial service in honor of three high-ranking Hezbollah representatives who were killed by Israelis. (Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Last month during a conference at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, the State Department’s David Satterfield said the administration would keep “bolster[ing] the elements of state security in Lebanon, with an emphasis on the Lebanese army.”

So reports Eldad Shavit, a researcher at the institute. Yet at the same conference another State Department official, Nathan Sales, argued “that the Lebanese army is currently a tool of Hezbollah and …  it is therefore pointless to strengthen it.”

Which of those two diametrically opposed views, coming from the same State Department, is accurate?

If Sales is right, it is troubling that since 2006, as Shavit notes, the U.S. has given the Lebanese army “more than $1.6 billion in military aid,” and that “recent months have witnessed an expansion in U.S. aid, some of which has already reached Lebanon.” This aid included attack planes and helicopters as well as drones.

The official Israeli view is that it’s all a big mistake. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman says:

[T]he Lebanese army has lost its independence and is another unit in Hezbollah’s apparatus, and therefore, as far as we are concerned, the infrastructure of the Lebanese army and the Lebanese state is one with the infrastructure of Hezbollah.

Shavit, a former high-ranking intelligence official, spells it out in more detail:

Close cooperation continues between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah. Therefore, the working assumption must be that weapons and knowledge that reach the Lebanese army will find their way into the hands of Hezbollah. This means that all aid to the Lebanese army is liable to strengthen the military capabilities of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, officially listed as a terror organization by the State Department, is an enemy of the West that is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

And yet:

Lebanese authorities are taking no action to prevent Hezbollah from increasing its military capabilities, and no efforts were made to prevent the group from deploying surface-to-surface missiles and rockets intended for striking at Israel and taking measures to improve the systems’ accuracy.

Tony Badran, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, takes an outright acerbic view of the U.S. aid to the Lebanese military. He notes what occurred during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Lebanon last month:

Tillerson was made to sit alone in a room with no American flag in sight and wait, as photographers took pictures and video, before Hezbollah’s chief allies in Lebanon’s government, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law the foreign minister, finally came out to greet him. Images of the U.S. Secretary of State fidgeting in front of an empty chair were then broadcast across the Middle East to symbolize American impotence at a fateful moment for the region.

Hezbollah, in Badran’s phrasing:

[A]n Iranian trained-and-financed army that has negated the legitimate political institutions of the Lebanese state through force while it brutally murders and ethnically cleanse[s] people in Syria and keeps 150,000 missiles targeted at Israel. … By supporting “Lebanon,” or “Lebanese state institutions,” the United States is in fact supporting a government dominated by a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

Washington’s ongoing delusory policy toward Lebanon comes at a time when some see an imminent possibility of war between Israel and its foes to the north. Despite repeated Israeli airstrikes on Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah targets in Syria, Iranian entrenchment in Syria appears to be continuing, with Iran reportedly building a new permanent military base near Damascus.

In case of a confrontation, Israel — facing not only Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles in Lebanon but possibly also a Syrian front — will not have the luxury of pussyfooting in its response. Attempting to deter such a conflict, Israel has repeatedly warned (for instance, here and here) that war on Hezbollah will also mean war on Lebanon — since the two have merged into the same military and political entity.

If deterrence fails and war breaks out, Hezbollah’s deployment in the midst of population centers will make civilian casualties inevitable — which, in turn, will make international pressure on Israel inevitable.

In such a scenario, Israel will need clear-sighted U.S. support based on the understanding that Israel will be fighting a no-choice war against a single, united enemy.