Washington Watch: Lebanon, friend or foe?

Before resuming arms shipments, Congress should demand evidence that LAF is part of the solution, not the problem.

US military assistance for Lebanon has been frozen by two powerful members of Congress while they and their colleagues try to figure out what they want in exchange for reopening the pipeline.
There’s no evidence so far that American-supplied arms were used in the unprovoked attack by Lebanese forces on Israeli soldiers working on their own side of the border last month, but the incident raises the question of whether we are arming – albeit disproportionately – two friends for war against each other. Or are we inadvertently arming a terrorist organization? The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are no match for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); in fact, they are not even a match for the better-armed and trained Hizbullah, which has vowed to join with the LAF in any conflict with Israel.
Hizbullah has massively rearmed since the 2006 war with Israel, acquiring more and longer-range missiles capable of hitting nearly all Israeli population centers.
Hizbullah has steadily expanded its political power as well, becoming the country’s dominant force. With its allies it holds a virtual veto in the cabinet and parliament, and can paralyze the government, as it did in 2008 to block an attempt to dismantle its telecommunications system.
Hizbullah’s biggest fear right now isn’t war with Israel but a Special International Tribunal implicating it in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others in February 2005. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, has warned that indictments of Hizbullah could spark another civil war. His latest ploy to deflect blame is to say Israel murdered Hariri in an attempt to incite anti-Syrian hostility in Lebanon.
Even many Lebanese who oppose Hizbullah are reluctant to see it accused of the murders, not because they believe it is innocent but because they fear it would provoke violence that would destroy the current economic boom their country is enjoying.
The assassination triggered the Cedar Revolution, the Syrian withdrawal and the formation of an independent government strongly backed by the United States. But American influence soon began to wane due to a lack of meaningful follow-through and distractions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Syrian political influence, however, has steadily resumed; its army has not yet returned, but Hizbullah represents the interests of Syria and Iran, which have made sure the terror group is well armed and trained.
UNIFIL, the United Nations force supposedly overseeing the ceasefire and preventing Hizbullah from rearming, has been a hopeless failure.
THE BUSH and Obama administrations have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in training and equipment to the LAF, but have paid scant attention to Lebanon even though it could too easily ignite another war much more lethal than the last one.
Many LAF officers and units are believed to be sympathetic if not actually loyal to Hizbullah. One such unit is believed responsible for the recent attack on Israeli soldiers.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-California), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the appropriations subcommittee that controls foreign aid spending, have placed holds on $100 million in US military aid in the pipeline for Lebanon, citing concerns over Hizbullah’s access to those weapons and its influence in the LAF.
Berman wants an “in-depth policy review” before resuming the aid, and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) is expected to hold hearings next month in his Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the second ranking Republican in the House, agrees. He wants aid blocked until the US can “certify” that the LAF is not cooperating with Hizbullah.
He said Washington has given Lebanon $720 million in military training and equipment since 2006, including assault rifles, missile launchers, grenade launchers and night-vision gear.
Before reopening the pipeline, lawmakers should demand some answers: – What is the level of Hizbullah influence in the LAF? – Can the LAF ever realistically guarantee the security and independence of a democratic Lebanon? – Can American weapons be kept out of the hands of Hizbullah? Lebanese President Michel Suleiman suggested Lebanon would go to “neighboring and friendly states” to get what it needed, implying Syria and Iran. Is that in America’s best interest? “It’s not a choice between good and bad but between bad and worse,” said a Congressional expert on the region. “If we stop selling arms – which are not top quality to begin with – they’ll have no trouble getting them elsewhere and we would lose important access and influence with the LAF. That would only enhance the role of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran and diminish opportunities for the LAF to play a stabilizing role in the country.”
– How can Washington help? The administration should seek to broker a series of quiet understandings between Israel and Lebanon that will stabilize the border, prevent future incidents and, if they do occur, make sure they don’t escalate. The US is the only player capable of filling that role – UNIFIL can’t, and the current Lebanese government won’t negotiate directly with Israel.
Before resuming arms shipments, Congress should demand evidence that the LAF is part of the solution, not the problem.