Donald Trump labelled the juggernaut Lebanese militant group Hizbollah as “a menace to the entire region” as he stood next to Lebanon’s Prime Minister during their first official meeting.
The U.S. President made the damning comments during a joint press conference with Saad Hariri following an 85-minute meeting between the two leaders at the White House.
He said: "Hizbollah is a menace to the Lebanese state, the Lebanese people and the entire region.’
Trump criticised Hizbollah’s continued growing reach "to increase its military arsenal which threatens to start yet another conflict with Israel” and went on to say that “with the support of Iran, the organisation is also fueling humanitarian catastrophe in Syria”.
However, Mr Trump seemed to make a pointed distinction between Lebanon and Hizbollah.
“Lebanon is on the frontline against the terrorism of ISIL, al-Qaeda and Hizbollah” he said while reiterating his administration’s commitment to continue supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
When he was asked about the congressional sanctions on Hizbollah, Mr Trump indicated he would be meeting with his military commanders and replied: "I'll be making my position very clear over the next 24 hours”.
During the press conference, Mr Trump also criticised Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
“I am no fan of Assad… what he's done to that country and humanity is horrible," the U.S. President said.
He also took aim at his predecessor Barack Obama for his decision to draw a red line on chemical weapons in Syria with no consequence. A move, he insisted, empowered both Iran and Russia in Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivered an equally damning verdict on Hizbollah.
Just hours before Mr Trump spoke, Ms Haley assailed Hizbollah as a “terrorist organisation that together with its Iranian patron, seeks to cause destruction throughout the Middle East.
“For a glimpse of Hizbollah’s true nature, look no further than its work on behalf of the Syrian dictator”.
She said Assad, Hizbollah and Iran were “responsible for some of the bloodiest campaigns of a very bloody war.
“Simply put, Hizbollah has grown stronger,” she warned the UN body. “It is preparing its men and its arsenal for a future war.”
For his part, Mr Hariri seemed more scripted in his remarks. He said: “I thanked President Trump for his support to our army and security agencies as well as his support to UNIFIL.
“We discussed the efforts Lebanon is making to safeguard our political and economic stability while combating terrorism.”
The Lebanese Prime Minister appeared reassured that the US will continue its support for the LAF.
Tuesday’s meeting at the White House boded well for Mr Hariri, according to experts and Lebanon-watchers.
The last time he visited the White House in 2011 as Prime Minister, he came out of the meeting as news of his collapsed cabinet broke in Beirut.
“This is an important moment for Mr Hariri and for Lebanon,” said Paul Salem, the vice president for policy analysis, research and programmes at the Middle East Institute.
He added that its significance signalled that the the conversation about Lebanon “has mainly come up in reference to Hizbollah or sanctions or refugees, and this is a welcome positive shift”.
The two leaders held a short one-on-one session, followed by a meeting between the Lebanese delegation and senior White House officials before their joint press conference in the Rose Garden.
Mr Hariri “came prepared with a wide ranging agenda for the meeting”, sources from the Lebanese delegation told The National.
They emphasised the economic aspect of the meetings with plans to rehabilitate Lebanon’s economy, and address the issue of more than a million and half Syrian refugee in the country.
Mr Salem said the Trump-Hariri meeting “could help mitigate the push for Hezbollah sanctions that could impact the Lebanese banking sector”.
The U.S. president “being a businessman himself would appreciate working with Lebanon to boost its [fragile] economy”, he said.
A member of the delegation said: “We are not very worried about the upcoming sanctions on Hizbollah.
"[Congress] have amended the bills to shield Lebanon’s institutions and make this about the party, not the Lebanese infrastructure.”
The Lebanese delegation is fully aware of Mr Trump's priorities to boost U.S. jobs and economy. Among the ideas prepared for the meeting was to ensure Lebanon became a “hub for US companies hoping to have a role in reconstruction in Syria”, a Lebanese senior official said.
Mr Salem said: “Pitching Lebanon as a base of business vis-à-vis Syria, or regionally might grab the attention of the U.S. president.”
Mr Hariri might also raise the subject of oil and gas exploration in Lebanon — an issue that has been stalled for years due to political bickering — which could open up economic opportunities for his country.
Previous U.S. administrations have offered help in offshore exploration and licensing on companies.
The meeting between the U.S. and Lebanese leaders also offers an opportunity to reinforce personal relations with the American president.
“It is vital for Mr Hariri to have the U.S. president as something of an ally when it comes to support of Lebanon and the aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces,” added Mr Salem.
The U.S. provides an average of US$80 million (Dh294m) in annual support for the LAF, but questions relating to budget cuts in the Trump administration and LAF’s relations with Hizbollah are now putting that aid at risk.
Hizbollah being militarily engaged in a border offensive against ISIL and Jabhat Nusra “definitely complicates Mr Hariri’s mission", but his mission is de facto complicated by Hizbollah, Mr Salem added.
“The Lebanese Prime Minister may not be able can’t give [a] satisfactory answer on Hizbollah, and there is very little he can say to resolve these concerns but he can highlight other issues in Lebanon, pluralism, new election law, and LAF role”.
For Mr Hariri, the meeting with the U.S. president is already a boost to his standing, said Mr Salem.
“The last time he was in the White House in this capacity, he came in as prime minister, he came out as a private citizen.
“This meeting could help the Lebanese PM to re-emerge on the world stage, and gives Lebanon momentum in other international platforms whether in Europe, the Arab world, Turkey, Russia, China or elsewhere.”