Nora Boustany is an award-winning former correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post based in Lebanon, where she writes and teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut. Daniel Williams is author of “Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East.”
First, Saad Hariri, prime minister of the beleaguered country, wants to keep his country out of Syria’s vicious civil war, where Hezbollah, Lebanon’s formidable and autonomous Shiite militia, is allied with Iran in support of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Islamist rebels and other rebels.
Lebanon also faces a bellicose Israel to the south, which is unhappy with archenemy Hezbollah’s growing power and is talking about flattening the country if Hariri doesn’t do something about it.
This tinderbox of pressures coincides with Hariri’s visit with President Trump in Washington on Tuesday, when he will try to keep the administration from ending a State Department program of military aid to Lebanon worth about $80 million this year. Trump should not end U.S. support for Lebanon’s armed forces.
Trump’s Middle East policy includes raising the rhetorical temperature on Iran and siding with Saudi Arabia in a regional power struggle against the Islamic republic. The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and Trump is committed to the U.S. alliance with Israel.
So where does that leave Lebanon, suspended between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on the one hand and Israel on the other? Hariri will prefer to avoid having to take sides among all these unpredictable players.
But this summer, Lebanese high-wire neutrality is under particular threat. Hezbollah has launched an offensive to clear Islamist rebels and other anti-Assad forces from the mountainous border area about 70 miles northeast of Beirut. The Islamic State, along with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, once an al-Qaeda affiliate known as the al-Nusra Front, are among the rebel groups.
The Lebanese army is trying to keep the insurgents from fleeing into the border town of Arsal and beyond. More than a million Syrian refugees have taken sanctuary in Lebanon.
Over the past few years, the Lebanese army aggressively hunted down rebel operatives to ensure Lebanon did not become a safe haven for anti-Assad groups and invite the wrath of Hezbollah and Syria. But the strategy also endangered the country’s stability.
In 2015, a pair of Islamic State suicide bombers blew themselves up in a Shiite Beirut neighborhood and killed about 40 people. In June 2016, Islamist suicide bombers detonated eight bombs in the Christian village of al-Qaa, just north of Arsal. It was a warning to the Lebanese army to stop pursuing rebels inside Lebanon.
About a month ago, the Lebanese army raided Arsal and rounded up about 360 rebel suspects. During the assault, five suicide bombers detonated explosives, killing a Syrian girl and wounding several soldiers. Brutality easily spread: Human Rights Watch said that at least four detainees died in army custody, with three showing signs of torture.
Western diplomats in Beirut are warning that anti-Assad sleeper cells, ensconced mostly in northern Lebanon and in Palestinian refugee camps, might unleash a terror spree in response to the army’s current activities.
Diplomats also wonder and worry about Israel’s intentions. Israel accuses the Lebanese government of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s military buildup in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and is not buying the notion that the government can’t control Hezbollah. Defanging Hezbollah was a requirement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.
During the past few months, Israelis have unleashed a drumbeat of threats. Israel’s former defense minister Moshe Yaalon warned darkly, “Every Lebanese will suffer from the next war because all infrastructure will be destroyed.”
Upping the ante, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that Hezbollah can hit all of Israel, including its nuclear reactor in Dimona, with its own hoard of missiles and that in the event of war, “tens of thousands” of Arabs would join the fight.
In interviews last week, U.N. peacekeepers — also criticized by Israel for going easy on Hezbollah in the south — that it doesn’t take much to spark war with Israel. In 2006, a cross-border Hezbollah raid, during which the militia captured two Israeli soldiers, triggered a major conflict. “We are on edge,” said a U.N. official in southern Lebanon.
So what comfort can Hariri get from Trump in this precarious situation? Hariri will want to not only keep military aid flowing but to also avoid conditions demanding that Lebanon try to disarm Hezbollah. Hezbollah is dangerously well-equipped and more potent than the Lebanese army. It is also politically powerful. The State Department’s 2016 terrorism report noted that Hariri’s own cabinet “did not consider legislative initiatives that could potentially threaten Hezbollah’s operations, as the presence of Hezbollah and its political allies in the government make the requisite consensus on such actions impossible.”
Trump ought to maintain support for the Lebanese army. As weak as the Lebanese army is, does the administration really want to leave the military field open only to Hezbollah? The price for supporting Hariri is small enough, even if military aid at least serves as a symbolic means to bolster official Lebanon in the face of Hezbollah.