Header Ads

SEO tools
  • Breaking News

    U.S Freezes Lebanon's Military Aid, And Russia May Come In For Help

    Soldiers of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) mobilized against protesters in Beirut in October 2019 [Timour Azhari/Al Jazeera]
    The Trump administration created yet another stir in Washington last fall when it mysteriously froze $105 million in military aid to Lebanon for several months. While the hold was quietly lifted on Dec. 2 after pressure from members of Congress, it ignited a debate over how the United States should engage with Lebanon amid an ongoing revolutionary protest movement that has already forced one prime minister in Beirut to resign. There are also signs that Lebanon views the U.S. as an increasingly unreliable security partner, allowing Russia to gain influence in this small but strategically important country in the Middle East.

    Few details have been made public about the White House’s initial decision to hold up the aid to Lebanon’s military. Much of the U.S. national security bureaucracy support assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which has long been viewed as an important counterweight to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia and political party that some Western and Arab countries, including the U.S., consider a terrorist organization. Washington provided more than $2 billion in military assistance to Lebanon between 2005 and 2019. Along with France, the U.S. is the primary supplier of weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

    The Trump administration’s decision to withhold a tranche of this aid last fall was therefore controversial, though not too surprising given Trump’s ongoing campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran and its partners, including Hezbollah. Some hawks in Washington argue that Hezbollah has too much power within Lebanon’s government and that U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces only winds up aiding Hezbollah rather than countering it. When Hezbollah fighters took control of West Beirut in a brazen show of force in 2008, the Lebanese Armed Forces failed to do more than stand idly by. Many American observers concluded from that incident and others that Lebanon was “lost” to Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.

    The war in neighboring Syria, however, has arguably helped Lebanon’s military appear more credible. Fierce fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its enemies created a major threat to Lebanon’s security, prompting the military to step up. The Lebanese Armed Forces played a key role in preventing jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate, from establishing footholds along the Syrian-Lebanese border and in the coastal city of Tripoli. Lebanon, with a population of just 6 million, hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees—along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have been in the country for decades—and the military has kept the areas housing Syrian refugees relatively stable despite the influx.
    Officials in Beirut are uneasy with the erratic nature of U.S. foreign policy under Trump. They seem increasingly willing to embrace Russia as an alternative.
    The Lebanese Armed Forces also play a unique institutional role in Lebanon. It enjoys widespread support from the country’s diverse religious communities and political factions, including many Shiites, largely because it employs citizens from all 18 of the country’s officially recognized sects. After mass protests erupted across the country in October, many demonstrators could be seen waving the military’s flag alongside the Lebanese flag. While there have been some scuffles between security forces and protesters, support for the military has remained strong throughout this period of unrest.

    The protest movement arguably threatens Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon, as some demonstrators have denounced the Iranian-backed organization’s activities as one of the drivers of the country’s crippling sectarian divisions. In response, Hezbollah has sought to undermine the protesters, in some cases even resorting to violence to intimidate them. Hezbollah is concerned that the protests could result in a power vacuum, creating opportunities for regional adversaries like Israel to gain influence.

    Accordingly, many prominent figures in Washington argued that withholding assistance from the Lebanese Armed Forces, one of the few credible institutions in Lebanon capable of countering Hezbollah, was an ill-timed move. In a statement posted to Twitter on his way back from a trip to Lebanon in late November, Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said that “people there are shaking their heads” over Trump’s refusal to send them military aid. Although the aid was released shortly thereafter, officials in Beirut are uneasy with the erratic nature of U.S. foreign policy under Trump. They seem increasingly willing to embrace Russia as an alternative.

    Last spring, Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where they discussed strengthening military and economic ties, as well as a Russian plan to send Syrian refugees back to Lebanon. This trip came just days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Beirut and threatened Hezbollah and its political allies, exposing a rift with his hosts. Lebanese officials have watched warily in recent years as Trump upended U.S. coalitions in the region. He initially endorsed the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, an important U.S. ally, in 2017. More recently, he greenlit a Turkish military offensive into northern Syria, threatening a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in the area. These moves send an unmistakable signal: That the U.S. can no longer be trusted to maintain its alliances and partnerships, both old and new, in the Middle East.

    Meanwhile, Moscow is making a concerted push to gain economic and soft-power clout in Lebanon. Russia opened several cultural centers in the country in 2018. And a year ago, Russian energy giant Rosneft signed a contract to operate oil storage facilities in northern Lebanon. Beirut is also partnering with Novatek, a major Russian gas producer, to explore potential hydrocarbon reserves off Lebanon’s southern coast. Russia’s influence in Syria also makes it important to Beirut’s interests. Lebanon is already the world’s third-most heavily indebted country, and hosting so many refugees is further draining its resources.

    Putin has pledged to facilitate the return of those refugees and play a role in Syria’s reconstruction.
    While that hasn’t happened yet, Lebanon and other Arab states increasingly view Russia as more likely than the U.S. to move the crisis in Syria to a resolution and prevent any long-term power vacuum from emerging. Given growing Russian influence in the broader region and this critical period of instability in Lebanon, many experts see Trump’s decision to withhold the military aid as giving Moscow an opportunity to increase its influence at America’s expense. As John Couch Haltiwanger argued in November, “cutting funding to the [Lebanese Armed Forces] at such a sensitive time for Lebanon could see the unrest spiral in a direction that leaves the country open to exploitation by US adversaries,” like Russia and Iran.

    Withholding the aid also flies in the face of long-running U.S. efforts to deter Lebanon from accepting Russia’s attractive offers for closer military cooperation. Lebanese proponents of strengthening defense ties with Russia now have one more argument in their favor. For now, it is unlikely that Lebanon’s government would fully end its long-standing orientation toward the U.S. and Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia. If anything, Lebanese overtures to Moscow would probably be aimed at compelling the U.S. and France to step up their existing support. But Moscow is nonetheless likely to continue to try and capitalize on the current friction between Washington and Beirut.

    Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy that focuses on the Middle East. His writing has been published by Al Monitor, LobeLog and the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.

    No comments

    Post Top Ad