(CNSNews.com) – An unexplained hold on U.S. military aid to Lebanon has been lifted, amid continuing debates over whether the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are doing enough to keep the powerful Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah in check.
For several months, the Trump administration has held up $105 million in appropriated military aid to Lebanon, providing no rationale for doing so. The hold has now been lifted, Reuters was first to report this week.
Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, is part of Lebanon’s national government, with ministers in the cabinet and lawmakers in parliament. The country is in political turmoil after seven weeks of protests, but as things currently stand its ceremonial president, parliamentary speaker, and outgoing foreign minister are all Hezbollah allies.
The U.S. has provided the LAF with more than $1.7 billion in military aid since 2006, a policy that is supported by the current State Department and its predecessors.
Proponents of the aid characterize the LAF as an essential “counterweight” to Hezbollah. “If you want to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, then you need to support the LAF,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who visited Lebanon last month and has been criticizing the hold on the aid, told Foreign Policy this week.
But critics say the LAF is deeply compromised, effectively inseparable from Hezbollah, and cannot realistically be expected to counter a militia that is part of the government from which the LAF takes its orders.
Earlier queries to the State Department about the hold on aid were referred to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has not explained the matter – stoking speculation that officials in that department were sympathetic to the view that helping the LAF helps Hezbollah.
Two House Democrats wrote earlier to OMB director Mick Mulvaney in a bid to get answers about the hold.
Last June, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced legislation to withhold 20 percent of U.S. military aid to the LAF unless the president certifies that the LAF is taking necessary steps to end Hezbollah’s influence over it.
Those steps would include actions to limit the influence of or expel any officer, commander or official found to be a member of, paid by, or significantly influenced by, Hezbollah.
The LAF would also need to demonstrate that it has “not cooperated, coordinated, or partnered with Hezbollah in any operation, campaign, or military exercise,” and to show a serious commitment to fulfill its obligation to disarm Hezbollah, as demanded by U.N. Security Council resolution.
(Security Council resolution 1701, adopted in 2006, calls for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”)
“Lebanon must separate itself from Hezbollah’s influence, and this legislation urges them to do so,” Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a co-sponsor of Cruz’ bill, said at the time.
Speaking on background on November 21, a senior State Department official called the LAF “the most capable and credible institution in Lebanon to date to counter Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.”
A reporter then argued that the LAF was not in fact countering Hezbollah, to which the official suggested, in effect, that it was the best that could be hoped for right now.
“It is, for now, been assessed as the most credible entity from a security force posture available to date, for now, in Lebanon,” the official said. “There is certainly much more room that can be done to address that posture there. But until then, that is the entity that has the most capability.”
The State Department has classified Lebanon as a “terrorist safe haven” ever since legislation enacted in 2004 – linked to the 9/11 Commission recommendations – required the department to report to Congress each year on the issue of terrorist sanctuaries.
Its most recent report, issued last October and covering 2018, said that Hezbollah “used the areas under its control for terrorist training, fundraising, financing, and recruitment,” and noted that the Lebanese government “did not take significant actions to disarm” the group.
Moreover, it said that Hezbollah during the year in review “had influence over some elements within Lebanon’s security services.”