The Middle East Channel

U.S.-Lebanese military cooperation at a crossroads

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon last week, where he spent two days making highly scripted appearances, brought condemnation from Congress and the State Department. The visit was part of the Islamic Republic's ongoing campaign of attempting to strengthen ties not just with Shi'a militants in Hezbollah, but with the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah, which has received assistance from Iran for the past two-decades, has gained in strength since the 2006 Lebanon war and has tightened its control over large portions of Southern Lebanon along Israel's border. But with condemnations of Ahmadinejad's trip to Lebanon, and the near daily warnings about a third Lebanon war, the issue of U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has been held up in Congress since August, is becoming a topic of growing importance. And withholding the aid could even be counterproductive to U.S. attempts to contain Iranian influence.

Those who have held up the aid--House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Nita Lowey (D-NY)--have expressed concern over how U.S. military equipment might be used after an August 3rd border incident that left two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and one Israeli officer dead. Congressional opponents of U.S. military aid to Lebanon are backed up by various groups with a strong interest in Israel's security.

"Congresswoman Lowey placed a hold on disbursement of military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces in the wake of the tragic and avoidable incident on the Israeli border," said Matthew Dennis, Communications Director for Rep. Lowey. "She continues to work with the Administration to determine how U.S. assistance can most effectively contribute to stabilizing Lebanon, enhancing our security and that of our allies."

An American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) memo from August 4th read: "The United States should press the Lebanese government to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and take meaningful steps to disarm Hezbollah. If the army continues to cooperate with Hezbollah, Washington must reevaluate its relationship with the Beirut government and the Lebanese Armed Forces -- the recipient of significant American military aid."

Israeli government officials were even more dismissive of the idea that the Lebanese government was independent from Hezbollah. "Iran's domination of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah has destroyed any chance for peace, has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. "Lebanon is rapidly becoming a new satellite of Iran. It's a tragedy for Lebanon," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli army radio.

And an October 18th report from the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) ominously concludes, "The battle for Lebanon is over and the good guys didn't win. Now the regional battle against Iran and its allies takes center stage. The question is whether the United States is ready to recognize the enemy."

But the Obama administration and various Middle East experts have expressed concern that the cutoff of military aid represents a serious blow to the LAF's ability to function as a regional stabilizing force, inadvertently strengthens Hezbollah, and pushes Lebanon further into Iran's sphere of influence.

"As we have said, U.S. support to Lebanon is part of an international commitment to help strengthen the institution of the Lebanese state and the ability of the Lebanese government to exercise sovereignty and authority over all its territory," said a State Department press officer.

Indeed, strengthening the LAF's capabilities is a foreign policy objective aimed at securing the Syrian border, stemming the flow of weapons to Hezbollah and, potentially in the long term, exerting increasing authority over Lebanon's Hezbollah-controlled south. But these objectives appear to have clashed with those in Congress, such as Reps. Lowey and Berman, who take issue with Iranian overtures to Beirut.

After the announcement of the aid freeze in August, Iran reportedly offered its own military assistance to Lebanon's army. Meanwhile, Berman and Lowey have maintained their blockage of aid to Lebanon after Ahmadinejad's visit last week. Iran and Lebanon signed 16 agreements for cooperation on energy and finance during the visit -- but none for military aid, as earlier reports had predicted

"Iran fills a political vacuum but there's no sign that the Iranians need a second proxy in Lebanon," said Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Resident Scholar Aram Nerguizian. "[Iran] will share the political space with Syria and Saudi Arabia, but as to the idea that they'll pump the LAF full of billions of dollars of military assistance: you only need one proxy."

Nerguizian, whose report on U.S. military aid to Lebanon is coming out later this month, asserts, "The LAF is driving ahead with their own plan of becoming an important security actor in the country. They want to be able to present a strong national defense posture, since that is the cache of Hezbollah. In the absence of an effective regional peace process, there is going to continue to be a drive to have the LAF be a more active security actor, especially south of Beirut."

But the point of tension, as highlighted since August, lies in the fact that Washington is impatient to see meaningful results from the five years--at $100 million per year--of military assistance and is frustrated by the LAF's inability or unwillingness to actively confront Hezbollah forces who have received decades of military assistance from Iran.

The speed with which Iran offered military aid -- although Tehran ultimately did not deliver it or Beirut chose not to accept -- to Lebanon after the congressional hold only served to emphasize the dangers of a U.S. withdrawal from its support of the LAF.

Ultimately, ongoing U.S. military support for the LAF will require an understanding of the deeply embedded Hezbollah position in southern Lebanon and a realistic understanding of what stability the LAF is capable of delivering in both the short and long term, as peace initiatives -- either Israel-Syria or broader Arab peace agreements -- take root. The LAF is unlikely to engage in direct confrontation with Hezbollah, if for no other reason than Hezbollah has succeeded to a considerable extent in depicting itself as Lebanon's primary defense against Israel. But an LAF which takes on greater security and infrastructure building responsibilities, with a membership which includes Sunnis, Shias and Christians, could serve as an increasingly important stabilizing force in years to come.

"If the U.S. stays involved with building up the LAF, the LAF can keep a lid on Lebanon and on spillovers into Israel and other friendly countries. It keeps Lebanon from escalating beyond the range of the real," says Nerguizian. "Hezbollah will continue to be a major security actor in Lebanon. [...] we're only at the beginning of a U.S.-LAF security relationship."

Eli Clifton blogs on U.S.-Iran relations at LobeLog.com.

AFP/Getty images

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