By Sarah N. Stern and Kyle Shideler
After Lebanon’s August 3rd cross-border sniper attack that killed Israel Defense Forces Colonel Dov Harari and injured a second officer, the U.S. Congress, led by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) ordered a hold placed on $100 million in military aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The United States previous committed $400 million toward the modernization of the LAF, hoping that the aid might prove a force capable of reckoning with the superior military strength of Iranian proxy Hezbollah.
Despite Congress’s swift action, the U.S government’s official position, as posited by the State Department, has not changed. Writes the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
According to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, Washington has no intention of re-evaluating its military relationship with Lebanon despite calls from Israel to do so.
“[U.S. financial aid to the army] allows the government of Lebanon to expand its sovereignty,” Crowley said. “We think that is in the interest of both of our countries and regional stability as a whole.”
The Lebanese have loudly protested the hold on U.S. military aid, with Defense Minister Elias Murr claiming that Lebanon will refuse aid that does not allow for arms to be used against Israel. Murr also said that the Lebanese soldier who killed Col. Harari was acting on orders from his superiors.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to step into the void caused by Congress’s hold on military aid. Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon promised to “cooperate with the Lebanese army in any area that would help the military in performing its national role in defending Lebanon.” Nor is this the first time Iran has floated the offer of military support for Lebanon. In May 2009, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told followers, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, and in particular Ayatollah Khamenei, will not hold back on anything that will help Lebanon be a strong and dignified state, and without conditions.”
The Iranian offer to intervene has some on Capitol Hill nervous that the hold on U.S. military aid to Lebanon, were it to become permanent, would increase Tehran’s influence over Beirut and leave Washington out in the cold.
This scenario ignores a central fact: The funds already provided have not enabled the LAF to force out Hezbollah and take real control of Lebanon, which is the stated U.S. goal. Instead, even while receiving aid, the LAF and the Lebanese government itself have been undergoing a process of “Hezbollization,” a phrase coined by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Danny Ayalon, who recently warned, “If Hezbollah manages to take control of the army, we will have to treat [the army] in a completely different manner.”
Unfortunately, “Hezbollization” has been underway for some time. In August 2009, the strategic intelligence company Stratfor warned:
A reliable source in the Lebanese military with strong connections to Hezbollah has informed Stratfor that Hezbollah’s security chief, Wafiq Safa, has significantly increased his authority over all Shiite officers in the Lebanese army. Safa, who maintains close contact with the Lebanese army command, now apparently has a say in all appointments, promotions and deployments of these officers. Safa also allegedly has made arrangements with the Lebanese army command to be regularly informed of the army’s movements and plans.
In May 2008, during Hezbollah-initiated streetfighting in Beirut, there were allegations that LAF commanders were complicit with the Shiite militia’s plans, refusing to combat Hezbollah and instead taking over checkpoints for the anti-government fighters rather than supporting pro-government forces.
The rise of the pro-American March 14th movement during the Cedar Revolution indicated that Lebanon might be turning over a new leaf. Yet, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Lebanon, we’ve seen Lebanese political figures turn away from America, towards Syria and Iran.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has traveled to Damascus to hobnob with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the man who ordered Hariri’s father, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, murdered, and prominent March 14th political figures have defected to the Hezbollah-led March 8th faction. Why? Journalist Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, describes the defectors’ thinking:
When I spoke to him last fall [Lebanese Druze leader Walid], Jumblatt rationalized his tactics by pointing to how the international community, and especially the United States, seemed unwilling to defend its Lebanese allies when Hezbollah overran Beirut in May 2008. The decline of the March 14 alliance then accelerated with the new U.S. administration’s stated intentions to engage Syria.
As we wrote back in March, U.S. engagement with Syria would be the last nail in the coffin of the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolutionaries, with no appreciable gain. And how can we expect the LAF to fight off growing Hezbollah influence, when Obama Administration Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan has called for reaching out to “moderates” within the group?
The Congressional hold on the $100 million in military aid to Lebanon ought to be made permanent. There is no sense in throwing good money after bad, and some things money simply can’t buy. Hezbollah’s continued infiltration and dominance of the LAF and the Lebanese political environment will continue apace, regardless of whether or not the U.S. provides military aid. No amount of U.S. funding will persuade the Lebanese government to be loyal to American interests, especially when U.S. policy is sending the opposite signals. We cannot honestly expect the Lebanese to stand up to Hezbollah, Syria and Iran at the same time the U.S. seeks engagement with them. All elements of U.S. power and policy must align on this issue if we are to have positive results.
We must understand the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism that has washed over the hearts and minds of many throughout the Middle East. The Islamists are the bullies in the playground. The frail and impotent pro-American Lebanese faction will not be strengthened simply by showering the Lebanese army with money. Instead, our precious taxpayers’ dollars will be purchasing weapons for Hezbollah — at a time when we can ill-afford this, either economically or in inadvertently strengthening an Iranian proxy.
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