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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

US policymakers need to tread carefully over the Lebanese situation

Too often the Lebanese army and Hizbollah, the Iranian proxy, are bundled together. That's wrong.

Lebanese soldiers gesture while riding on an armoured vehicle as they leave the mountainous border town of Ras Baalbek. Reuters
Lebanese soldiers gesture while riding on an armoured vehicle as they leave the mountainous border town of Ras Baalbek. Reuters

Crunch time is approaching for Hizbollah, the Lebanese militia group. Politicians in the US Congress will vote, possibly today, on whether to impose stricter sanctions on the organisation, which was designated a terrorist group by the US some 20 years ago. Such an action would fit neatly into Donald Trump’s stated aim to get tough on Iran, Hizbollah’s backer. Unveiled earlier this month, his strategy document promised to focus on neutralising “Iran’s destabilising influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.” Last month, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, said the “clouds or war” were gathering, suggesting a conflict between Hizbollah and Israel was fast approaching.

As The National reported, Lebanon’s army commander, Gen Joseph Aoun, has travelled to the US to meet his military counterparts at the Pentagon. He is due to discuss American assistance for counter-terrorism operations against ISIL, as well as a military hardware order and the general aid package that is extended to the Lebanese army by the US. He is also expected to meet at least two Congressional committees. His trip is well-timed and should help provide much-needed nuance for US policymakers and military men.

His visit arrives shortly after Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s rarely less than controversial defence minister, stated that the Lebanese army was an integral part of Hizbollah. While his comments were not only inaccurate, they were also dangerous and only serve to stoke misconceptions that too often find their way into policy positions in the international community.

Those who believe in Mr Lieberman’s erroneous rhetoric will no doubt point to events in Arsal earlier this year, when the Lebanese army and Hizbollah worked together to push Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the Al Qaeda affiliate, out of the area. The incident caused some discomfort in Lebanese officialdom and political spheres, who felt it was the responsibility of the army rather than an Iranian proxy force to deal with an extremist threat in their own backyard. The actions also helped to give traction to the reductive argument that such incidents demonstrate that the army and Hizbollah are one. The reality of the Arsal situation – a marriage of convenience that was brought into being to drive out a mutual enemy – was all but flattened in the rush to condemn the army.

Michael Young argued on these pages last week that Lebanon is a “house of many mansions”, with a complex network of power arrangements and allegiances at work. US policymakers would be wise to reflect on those words. While Israel appears intent on banging the drums of conflict by rolling out a view of Lebanon that bears little basis in reality, Congress must see through that bluster. Few in this region oppose Mr Trump’s new combative strategy on Iran and its proxies, including Hizbollah, but that effort must not be used to target the Lebanese people or its army.