The U.S. Must Halt Unconditional Aid to Lebanon | Opinion

In October 2019, an unprecedented wave of pan-sectarian protests broke out in Lebanon. Individuals of all religious backgrounds—Christians, Druze, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims—denounced rampant corruption among the political class, which stands accused of running the country's affairs at the behest of Iran and Syria and at the expense of the Lebanese people. The Iran-bankrolled terror group Hezbollah—the major political stakeholder in Lebanon—was met with particular indignation from protestors, who chanted "terrorists, terrorists, Hezbollah are terrorists."

One of the Trump administration's chief goals in the Middle East is to counter Iranian aggression. It is therefore disappointing to see a tepid reaction by the United States to protests in Lebanon. On the eve of Lebanon's 100th birthday, the country defaulted on its debt of $1.2 billion. Facing a perilous financial crisis exacerbated by COVID-19, with a 70 percent decline in the value of its currency, Lebanon will look to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a multi-billion-dollar bailout. As Hezbollah tightens its grip on the Lebanese government—Prime Minister Hassan Diab is backed by Hezbollah and welcomed Hezbollah into his cabinet—it is time for the U.S. to act. The U.S. is the largest contributor to the IMF and separately donates approximately $724 million in direct aid to Lebanese institutions each year. The Trump administration has the duty and the capability to counter Hezbollah's influence in the country.

Instead, the United States thus far opts to provide unconditional aid to Lebanese institutions that only serve to strengthen Hezbollah's treacherous activities. Consider the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The State Department describes U.S. assistance to the LAF—to the tune of $218 million in combined aid in 2019—as "a key component of U.S. policy in Lebanon and aims to strengthen Lebanon's sovereignty, secure its borders, counter internal threats, disrupt terrorist facilitation and build up the country's legitimate state institutions." But the LAF has not only stood by as Hezbollah gained a preponderance of force in southern Lebanon—it has actively partnered with the Iran-backed group.

The LAF and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon are jointly charged with enforcing UN Security Council (UNSCR) Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which maintain that all militias in Lebanon should be disarmed and barred from the area between the Litani River and the Blue Line—a stone's throw from Israel. But since Hezbollah's bloody conflict with Israel in 2006, under the LAF's watch it has amassed up to 150,000 rockets, missiles and mortars stationed on the border with Israel for a future war, according to analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East policy. In addition, a recent UN report reveals that the LAF impeded the UN's access to areas where Hezbollah is active, under the guise of a phony environmental NGO, Green Without Borders.

"UNSCR 1701 mandates that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and the LAF work together to prevent any military activity by Hezbollah south of the Litani River," Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explains. This partnership has failed. "There is not just military activity, but cross-border military activity, infiltrating into Israel." These cross-border tunnels dug into Israel by Hezbollah are only the beginning.

Hezbollah flags waving in Beirut, Lebanon
Hezbollah flags waving in Beirut, Lebanon JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

The notion that the LAF is a reliable agent for securing Lebanon's sovereignty is demonstrably false, Badran says. "If you are a stakeholder—however minor—in the system, the LAF is likely not to move against you unless there is political cover for it to move against you." The LAF is under the control of the Lebanese government, itself in the grasp of Hezbollah. Indeed, there is evidence that the Lebanese military fought alongside Hezbollah in the Syrian Civil War—for example, in battles near Arsal on the border between the two countries.

Any institution that strengthens Hezbollah is in contravention of Lebanon's sovereignty. Upon its inception, Hezbollah pledged allegiance to revolutionary Iran's Imam Khomeini and vowed that there was "no alternative to confrontation" with the United States and Israel, respectively referred to as the "Great Satan" and the "Little Satan." For over four decades, Hezbollah conspired to build a "state within a state" in Lebanon. But now, this paradigm no longer applies. After Qassem Soleimani's death in a U.S. airstrike in January, Hezbollah lined the streets of Beirut with pictures of the slain IRGC-Quds Force commander and unveiled a monument in his honor. Iran is closer than ever to its desired "land bridge" between Tehran and the Mediterranean Sea. The indignation of the Lebanese people is evident from the popular protest slogan: "Here is Lebanon, not Iran."

Some hoped that the LAF would redeem itself by acting as a neutral institution protecting protestors during the ongoing demonstrations. However, according to a November 2019 report by international watchdog Amnesty International, in northern Lebanon, the LAF opened fire against "dozens of protestors staging a sit-in." Two people were "seriously injured by live ammunition," and four were "unlawfully detained for six days by the military."

If the Trump administration is keen not to repeat the mistakes made in the region under President Obama, it should take note of these failings. Obama was idle when it came to civil conflict in Syria, as well as the bloody proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He accepted false promises from the Iranian regime in order to secure a flawed nuclear deal for his own political legacy. But among these mistakes was also his reluctance to speak out in support of pro-democracy movements in the region. As the Arab world erupted in grassroots protests against corrupt and power-hungry sectarian governments, Obama's stance was uncertain. He snubbed the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, reportedly even ordering the CIA to sever any relationships with the protestors.

The United States recently passed sanctions on entities that do business with the Syrian regime, which will weaken Hezbollah. But the administration has exhibited indecision in other areas of importance. After apparently deciding to freeze aid to Lebanon in October 2019, Secretary Pompeo quietly released both military and economic assistance to the country a few weeks later—without any explanation.

The U.S. cannot continue to pedal the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity in Lebanon while contributing to Iranian ambitions that violate these promises. In this time of crisis in Lebanon, the U.S. should stand behind Lebanese protestors who are risking their lives to denounce Iranian encroachments on their country. The U.S. must not agree to an IMF bailout or future aid payments to the LAF unless it receives assurances that Hezbollah will not benefit from them. For the sake of both the American national interest and the Lebanese people, we must stop giving unconditional aid to Lebanon.

Tamara Berens is a Krauthammer fellow at Mosaic magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.