Omri Ceren writes to draw attention to Jay Solomon’s Wall Street Journal article “U.S. Strategy in Lebanon Stirs Fears.” Omri writes:
Hayya Bina is a Beirut-based civil society NGO that – among other things – works to craft and promote an alternative Shiite identity in in opposition to Hezbollah. The WSJ reported yesterday that the State Department has just cut some of its funding. Not all of its funding, which would make sense if the organization was inefficient or corrupt.
The administration only cut the funding for programs – and this is a direct quote from a State Department letter viewed by the WSJ – “intended [to] foster an independent moderate Shiite voice.” Regional actors and folks in town are drawing the straightforward conclusion:
[T]he U.S. move feeds into an increasingly alarmed narrative held by many Arab leaders who say that U.S. and Iranian interests appear increasingly aligned—at their expense. Both Washington and Tehran are fighting Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, with U.S. conducting airstrikes against the militants, but notably not against Mr. Assad’s Iran-backed regime… Some pro-democracy activists in Washington also voiced concern that cutting Hayya Bina’s funding will send a message that the U.S. is tacitly accepting Hezbollah in an effort to appease Iran. “At best, the decision shows poor political judgment,” said Firas Maksad, director of Global Policy Advisors, a Washington-based consulting firm focused on the Middle East. “Coming on the heels of an expected deal with Iran, it is bound to generate much speculation about possible ulterior motives.”… the Obama administration has also cooperated with Lebanese institutions—including the armed forces and an intelligence agency—that are considered close to Hezbollah and combating Islamic State and Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-affiliated militia in Syria.
That last part of the excerpt – about the Obama administration’s cooperation with Lebanese institutions controlled by Hezbollah – has separately been getting a lot of play lately. Last week the Pentagon quietly posted a news release announcing “the State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Lebanon for AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles” (I haven’t seen this one reported out, incidentally ). Yesterday State Department Press Office Director Jeff Rathke confirmed that the US will be delivering TOW missiles to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and is contemplating the delivery of six A29 aircraft .
That’s just since June began. The problem is that the LAF’s operations are objectively oriented toward shoring up Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, more or less serving as a rear guard while Hezbollah fights in Syria. Hezbollah and the LAF have been fighting alongside one another on the Lebanese-Syrian border for months . Inside Lebanon top politicians have long accused Hezbollah of using Lebanese security institutions to prevent blowback from Syria .
Tony Badran from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies already published a kind of canonical piece on how the LAF has become a domestic tool for Hezbollah last year in English-language Lebanese media . The punchline on the new A29 delivery is that the administration says it’s aimed in part at helping the LAF “enforce United Nation’s security council resolutions 1559 and 1701” . Those resolutions call on the LAF to act against Hezbollah. Except the LAF doesn’t so much disrupt Hezbollah these days as de facto back its play in Syria.
So on one side the US is strengthening Lebanese institutions that insulate Hezbollah from the consequences of its Syria warfighting. On the other side – this is the WSJ scoop – the US is kneecapping organizations inside Lebanon that are trying to wrest control of those very institutions away from Hezbollah. The combination can’t help but feed regional fears that Washington is realigning with Tehran, and that the US’s traditional Arab allies have to go it alone. Remember that in a little over two weeks the Arab countries will be making those calculations with an Iran deal in the background that puts the Iranians on a 10 year glide path to a nuclear weapon.