London, 6 Jun – The US Congress has increased its focus on the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the control it has over the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and Hezbollah’s strong results in the Lebanese parliamentary elections.
During a hearing, held by the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on May 22, much of the conversation was focused on Hezbollah, a group that is named on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations, and its close relationship to Iran.
The concern that Hezbollah’s recent electoral victories have deepened Iranian influence in Lebanon was voiced by both Democrats and Republicans.
Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, US Representative for Florida and chair of the subcommittee, said that she has been concerned about LAF-Hezbollah cooperation and US commitment to the LAF for a long time, noting that the US cannot legally (or morally) support the LAF if it is being controlled by a US-designated foreign terrorist organisation.
She called on the Trump administration to reassess US security assistance to the LAF, challenging the assertion that support for the LAF offered resistance against Hezbollah.
She said: “After years of cooperation, there is zero evidence that this policy is working…. There is no doubt that weakening Hezbollah should be US policy.”
She then criticised the Trump administration for ending programmes that promoted democracy in Lebanon, arguing that those could have increased support for “moderate” forces in the elections and prevented “Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, from consolidating control.”
These concerns were echoed by Danielle Pletka, senior vice-president at the American Enterprise Institute, who cited evidence of coordination between the LAF and Hezbollah in her speech.
She explained that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah describes the LAF as a “partner” and a “pillar” in their bid to run the country.
Pletka said: “Is it not inappropriate to worry that the government of Lebanon is effectively itself becoming a proxy of Iran?”
While Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, said that Hezbollah’s victory was not the end of the game and that she expects this will shift again by the next election.
She advises that pulling away from the LAF or forcing Lebanon into a fight would only benefit Iran.
It is worth noting that the Trump administration does not seem ready to alter its LAF policy too much, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying that the LAF is “one of the few stable institutions” in Lebanon after his speech about getting tough on Iran. However, Pompeo did promise that the State and Defence Departments would be closely monitoring the funds.
While US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US military’s Central Command, said that the US army is “confident” that the LAF is not funding Hezbollah.
Congress does not share this confidence however. the House Armed Services Committee added a requirement to the recently passed National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2019 that the US President must submit to a report on Hezbollah’s missile cache and capabilities, illegal weapons trafficking routes, and any entities that support it, to Congress within 90 days.