Lebanon News

Why the U.S. may cut off Lebanon in a ‘nanosecond’

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2018, file photo, the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

As Washington looks at ways to ramp up its pressure on Iran throughout the Middle East, political sources are worried about the possibility of Lebanon suffering as a result of collateral damage if it doesn’t find a way to rein in Hezbollah’s activities in the region. The U.S. Congress is more resolute than ever about drawing a redline with Iran, one political source working on Capitol Hill said on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

And despite comments by Lebanese officials including President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri that Hezbollah’s weapons are linked to regional and international solutions, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration will not hesitate to cut funding to Lebanon.

According to the source, there are three things that are discussed in Congress on a near-daily basis.

“Iran, Russia and Hezbollah and Lebanon needs to realize this before it’s too late.”

During a meeting with the American Task Force for Lebanon Monday, Aoun appealed for the group to help secure funding for the Lebanese Army.

Since 2006, the Army has received more than $1.7 billion from the U.S. in military aid.

In August of last year, Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon said that U.S. Special Forces were present in Lebanon to provide training and support to the Lebanese Army.

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, confirmed this in February, saying the U.S. Army Special Forces were working closely with the Lebanese Army.

However, this could all change in a split second. “U.S. policy is now made via a tweet in the morning,” the source said in reference to Trump’s regular use of Twitter.

The source added: “Look at the last few months and the decision to cut funding to UNRWA and the decision against the Palestinian authorities.”

At the time, the State Department said the reason they ordered the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization office was the failure to “advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

How does this relate to Lebanon? The U.S. has been clear in its message to Lebanese officials that any involvement of Hezbollah in a ministry that receives U.S. funding will have severe repercussions.

“The work being done by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut is fantastic and they really understand the situation there, but it would take a nanosecond in Congress to make a decision to halt U.S. aid to Lebanon,” the source said.

Apart from being the biggest donor of military aid to Lebanon, the U.S. continues to provide significant economic support.

Trump’s budget request for financial year 2018 sought $85 million in economic aid, according to the financial year 2019 congressional budget justification for foreign operations.

The executive branch in D.C. obligated $208 million in assistance for Lebanon during 2017, including $110 million in Economic Support Fund aid and $80 million in Foreign Military Financing aid.

Another concern Congress has its eyes on is the potential agreement between Beirut and Moscow for Lebanon to accept a Russian credit line for the purchase of Russian weapons.

But a senior Lebanese diplomatic source said that Lebanon is trying to tread a “fine line” and not upset anyone. “Let’s face the facts that Russia and Iran are on our borders, so we have to deal with them,” the source said.

While the diplomatic source cites Russia’s initiative on Syrian refugees as a bargaining tool being held over Lebanon’s head, the U.S. doesn’t seem like it’s buying.

The current U.S. administration is requesting $152 million in total funding for Lebanon for the financial year 2019, and all eyes will be on how Lebanon deals with Russia and via Hezbollah Iran.

“Accepting a Russian line of credit or giving Hezbollah certain ministries couldn’t make it any easier for Congress to cut off Lebanon and this is something Lebanese politicians need to realize before it’s too late,” the political source said.

“Policy toward Iran right now and Hezbollah’s influence in Beirut will make Lebanon collateral damage if things don’t change,” the source noted.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 27, 2018, on page 2.

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