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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Lebanon army chief visits Washington as Congress votes on Hizbollah sanctions

Gen Joseph Aoun expected to discuss more US assistance for counter-terrorism operations

Lebanese army chief General Joseph Aoun arrives at an operational command post in the eastern town of Ras Baalbek, on August 23, 2017, as troops conduct an operation against the Islamic State (IS) group on the country's border with Syria. AFP
Lebanese army chief General Joseph Aoun arrives at an operational command post in the eastern town of Ras Baalbek, on August 23, 2017, as troops conduct an operation against the Islamic State (IS) group on the country's border with Syria. AFP

Lebanon's army chief will be visiting Washington this week at the same time that US legislators vote on stricter sanctions legislation against the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah.

General Joseph Aoun is scheduled to meet the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen Joseph Dunford and the commander of US Central Command Gen Joseph Votel later this week at the Pentagon, The National has learnt.

The general's visit, his second since taking charge of the Lebanese Armed Forces in March, will focus on US assistance for counterterrorism operations following the army's fight against ISIL in the Arsal border region in August. A new package on the table includes Super Tucano aircraft, said a US source following preparations for the visit.

Washington provides almost $70 million (Dh257m) a year in security and military aid for Lebanon.

Gen Aoun’s visit coincides with a Congress vote on legislation to cut off the finances of Hizbollah, designated as a terrorist organisation by the US government since 1997.

The Hizbollah International Financing Prevention Act (Hifpa) of 2017 authorises new sanctions against the Iran-funded group and its financial networks and requires the US president to release an annual estimate of the net worth of Hizbollah leaders and backers, including its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah.

A vote in the House of Representatives, where the bill has the support of both parties, is expected on Wednesday but could come as soon as Monday.

Gen Aoun's visit on the heels of such vote “needs to tread a fine line between the political scenes in Beirut and Washington”, said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.

“If he is perceived by Hizbollah as having become an ally for the US in its strategy to roll back Iranian influence in the region, this will complicate relations between the Lebanese army and Hizbollah,” Ms Slim told The National.

By the same token, if Gen Aoun “is seen as too accommodating to Hizbollah’s demands and red lines, it will risk undermining US congressional support for US military assistance to Lebanon”, she said.

The Lebanese army chief is expected to also meet members of Congress from the foreign affairs and armed services committees during his visit.

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The Hifpa bill strengthens a law passed in 2015 and calls for sanctions on any foreign person or entity who “assists, sponsors or provides significant financial, material, or technological support" or who is determined by the president to be engaged in fund-raising or recruitment activities for Hizbollah.

The bill also targets Hizbollah affiliates including Bayt Al Mal, Jihad Al Bina, the Islamic Resistance Support Association, the Foreign Relations Department of Hizbollah, the External Security Organisation of Hizbollah, and its media outlets — Al Manar TV and Al Nour Radio.

Senior Lebanese officials, parliamentarians and banking officials have visited Washington in the past six months to soften the blow of the bill and contain damage to the country’s already vulnerable economic sector.

“I’ve had long conversations with the government from Lebanon on this,” congressman Ed Royce, a main sponsor of the bill, said recently.

Speaking at a panel hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Mr Royce took a dig at the participation of Hizbollah in Lebanon's government.

“These conversations would probably be more impactful to me and my colleagues if we didn’t have an agent of Hizbollah sitting in the room when we have them," he said. "This is one of the greatest misgivings I have about Lebanon allowing Hizbollah into the government.”

The bill has undergone a few amendments from the draft leaked in the Lebanese press in May, and no longer targets or mentions by name Hizbollah allies such as the Shiite group Amal or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Ms Slim said that by now “the political and financial sectors in Lebanon have already factored in the US sanctions”.

While Hizbollah's leader has said the sanctions would not impede its operations, Ms Slim noted that “once they feel squeezed by the sanctions, they will likely retaliate against Lebanese financial and/or US assets”.