'Hezbollah is a menace': 5 takeaways from the Trump-Hariri Lebanon meeting

The meeting in Washington was overshadowed by Trump's domestic problems and left more questions than answers about Hezbollah's role in Lebanon.

July 26, 2017 05:50
US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hari

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, July 25, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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On July 25th US President Donald Trump hosted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the White House. In a five-day visit that began Monday Hariri is in Washington to seek continued support, estimated at $80 million, and support for 1.5 million Syrian refugees who are being hosted in Lebanon.

"Hezbollah is a menace, Assad is horrible"

Donald Trump articulated a robust stance against Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is a menace to the Lebanese state, people and region,” the US president said. “The group continues to increase its military arsenal which threatens Israel.”

In addition Trump linked Hezbollah to Iran and claimed that together they “fuel a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. It portrays itself as a defender of Lebanese interests but its true interest is itself and its sponsor, Iran.”

HEZBOLLAH MEMBERS, supporters and relatives attend the funeral of three Hezbollah fighters who were killed fighting alongside the Syrian Army last year. (Reuters)

Asked about the US Congress threatening sanctions on Hezbollah, Trump hinted that he would be announcing a new policy position against the group. He also spoke harshly of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming he is “horrible” and that if the US had punished him several years ago under Barack Obama then “I don’t believe you’d have Russia and Iran in Syria today, to the extent they are, or not at all.”

Trump clearly was briefed on concerns about Hezbollah in the region, especially its role in Syria and Israel’s worries that Iran is setting down deeper roots in Lebanon. But Trump has also signed on to a ceasefire in Syria that empowers Assad close to Israel’s border and also empowers Hezbollah. If Hezbollah is a menace, where is the policy on rolling it back? If Assad is horrible, then why is the US administration not upping support for Syrian rebels, but rather decreasing that support?

But, Trump doesn’t seem to understand Hezbollah in Lebanon

Although Trump articulated a clear stance against Hezbollah as a threat to Israel and the region and its relationship with Iran, he seemed to not understand it’s role in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a partner in the current government of Lebanon, controlling the ministries of Industry and Sports and Youth.

It has 12 seats out of 128 in the parliament. It is allied to President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement which controls the Ministry of Defense portfolio and its allies in Amal, another Shia movement, control the ministry of Finance. 

A Hezbollah commander briefs press members on April 20 about Israeli military positions along the border with Lebanon (AFP)

Hariri and his Future Movement control 26 seats in parliament and several other ministries. But Hezbollah is the real power behind the curtain in Lebanon. In recent days it showed this through an offensive in the Arsal region against jihadist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Instead of using the Lebanese army, Hezbollah went to defend the border.

So when Trump indicated in his remarks that the Lebanese army confronts Hezbollah, it does not. When he claims that the Lebanese army “has been fighting continually to prevent ISIS and other terrorists from gaining a foothold,” he neglects to mention that actually Hezbollah fights against these groups, the Lebanese army often takes second-seat.

Trump wants to make the Lebanese army into an “effective fighting force” but the reality is that Hezbollah increasingly controls much of the foreign and military policy of Lebanon. Trump doesn’t have a plan to disentangle that, and Hariri isn’t a partner, at the moment, in doing so.

Guns and butter

Hariri discussed the need for “safeguarding political and economic stability while combating terrorism.” He said that he “thanked Trump for support for our army and peace and stability along the southern border.”

This acknowledges that Hariri, insofar as he has much of a say, wants quiet with Israel. But he needs financial assistance for the military and especially support for the Syrian refugees who are potentially a destabilizing force in Lebanon. They now make up around 20% of the country.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri during a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, July 25, 2017 (Reuters)

Hariri is desperate to show that there is a second Lebanon, besides the one that Hezbollah has its tentacles in.
Hezbollah likely murdered Hariri’s father Rafic in a bombing in 2005. The younger Hariri is therefore the non-Hezbollah face of Lebanon, but how much of the assistance the US provides ends up benefiting Hezbollah in a roundabout way? How can the US sanction Hezbollah and not sanction the Lebanese government? Will Syrian refugees, when they see Assad winning the war in Syria and no prospect of return, turn to more extremism and attack Hezbollah which has played such a key role in Syria? 

These tough questions had to be on the agenda in Washington, and they loomed over the Trump-Hariri meeting.

Trump is distracted by his other problems

The president is holding bilateral talks with his 55th foreign leader. If his domestic policies were not so controversial, and his relations with Russia, then this would seem like an achievement. However Trump’s discussions with Hariri are overshadowed with disputes he has with his attorney general Jeff Sessions, the continuing Russia controversy and also inability to progress on issues such as health care.

For that reason reporters who attended the Hariri meeting were more interested in those other controversies than in what is happening in Lebanon

Lebanon, from failure to regional player

Almost thirty years ago it was Saudi Arabia brokering the Taif agreement to end the Lebanese civil war and Lebanon was occupied by Syria. Now Hezbollah is the one occupying part of Syria and Lebanon is talking about helping the Saudis and Qataris forge an agreement in the gulf crises.

Hariri said that he was focused on “improving the relationship of Saudi Arabia and Qatar” and that the “US could help in solving this issue in the Gulf.” This paints Lebanon as the reasonable and stable player in the region, while other countries have conflicts.

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