Earlier this month, the US introduced the largest set of sanctions and proposals against Iran and its allies in the Middle East.
The 111-page proposal by Republican Congressmen recommended a plethora of measures to curb Iran's influence in the Islamic Republic and beyond. Some of these measures include designating Yemen's Houthi rebels as terrorists, aid cuts to Iraq's Ministry of Interior, the Lebanese Army and sanctions on Iran-aligned militias in Iraq, Hezbollah members and, for the first time, on some of their political allies – including former Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.
If passed into law in its current form, the proposal would send shockwaves throughout the region. Yet the bill largely went unnoticed. Renewed protests across Lebanon and Suweida, in regime-held Syria, two countries where an economic crisis is brewing, dominated headlines, in addition to the rolling out of the Caesar Act.
Some of the document’s recommendations were long expected. For instance, the proposition to designate Iran-aligned militias in Iraq, such as the Badr Corps, as terrorist groups, comes as no surprise. It was unlikely that the attacks these groups had launched earlier this year on the US embassy in Baghdad and on American troops would go unpunished. The intention to clamp down on Hezbollah was also foreseeable. The US had already sanctioned two of their sitting members of Parliament last July.
More surprising, however, is that the bill suggests imposing sanctions on state institutions in Iraq and Lebanon, a move that was preceded last April by designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terror group.
The bill recommends that US funding be blocked for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Federal Police, which the authors of the bill believe are under the influence of the Badr Organisation.
Under the new Cabinet of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, the Ministry of the Interior is run by Othman Ali Farhood Musheer Al Ghanimi, who is close to Tehran. Additionally, former prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi oversaw a bloody crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, allowing pro-Tehran militias to kill hundreds of protesters since last October, another reason for the US to slash funds (although an investigation into the matter, ordered by Mr Al Kadhimi, is now underway). The bill also recommends that special waivers, usually granted for Iraq to buy Iranian electricity and gas, are not renewed. Such a move may prompt Iraq to seek alternative solutions with its Arab neighbours, potentially pushing Baghdad further away from Iran’s orbit.
The same cannot be said, however, about some of the bill’s recommendations on Lebanon. Cutting US aid to Lebanon's military will undermine the only secular institution that can stand up to internal and external threats in a country on the brink. The committee that drafted the bill believes the Lebanese army is under the sway of Hezbollah, an assumption supported by Israeli intelligence. It is problematic, to say the least, that the Congressmen are basing their recommendations on information obtained by Israel, a country still technically at war with Lebanon.
It is also important to note that the Lebanese army has wiped out terrorist groups with the potential to compromise US interests in the region. Since the early 2000’s, the Lebanese Armed Forces fought back extremist incursions in the country from the likes of Islamist leader Ahmad Al Assir and his followers in the Southern city of Sidon, and the terrorist group Fatah Al Islam in Nahr Al Bared Palestinian refugee camp to the north. For the past decade, it has also thwarted several attempts by ISIS, Al Nusra Front and others to take root in Lebanon, in a spillover from Syria’s civil war.
Part of the military’s success in repelling these groups is the aid it receives. The US alone has given the Lebanese army more than $2 billion in funding since 2005, armament and training. This support has allowed the army to remain Lebanon’s last secular institution and endow it with popular support. And while the army has to accommodate Hezbollah, which controls the government and a large chunk of parliament, the two are far from being allies. They are in fact competitors. For instance, Hezbollah supporters allege that the group single-handed defeated ISIS, when it had set up a tiny enclave in the north in 2017. In reality, it was the army that fought the battle. The group also promotes the idea that the army pleaded for its help to beat ISIS but it was never asked to participate in the first place.
While the Republican committee backs its proposal by stating that aid cuts aim to support Lebanese protesters demanding the end of sectarian rule, it fails to truly listen to what those same protesters have to say. Throughout Lebanon’s mass demonstrations that began last October, people on the streets have expressed support for the army, with some protesting in cameo uniforms and holding pro-army banners. This support was particularly apparent in the early days of the uprising and is owed to the army’s special role in Lebanese society.
It is the only state institution still relatively unscathed by sectarianism and political manoeuvring. The army is largely still seen as a neutral, stabilising force and a symbol of Lebanese unity. Denying the Lebanese army any US aid is a highly symbolic gesture that simply sends out the wrong message. It signals to the Lebanese people that the US is seeking to undermine the only unifying institution in their country.
Cutting aid to the army is also dangerous because it feeds into Hezbollah’s propaganda machine. A common trope used by the group to justify its existence is that the army is too weak to protect the country, making Hezbollah and its vast weapons arsenal Lebanon’s sole line of defence. This argument resonates with many in Lebanon’s south, a region occupied by Israel for more than 15 years, where many still have painful memories of having been failed by a collapsed Lebanese state and its fractured army during the war.
The bill also suggests that US taxpayer money must not go to a potential International Monetary Fund bailout of Lebanon at a time of economic crisis. The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which claims to be an expert-led Cabinet, is aligned with Hezbollah, opening the door for IMF funds to fall into the wrong hands. Protesters want to see the back of Mr Diab's government and the fall of a ruling sectarian elite that has mismanaged the country's finances, precipitating economic collapse and normalising large-scale corruption.
Many experts, however, hold hope that an IMF deal conditioned on substantial reforms would force the country to enact much-needed reforms and curb Hezbollah’s influence.
Yet, for the past three decades, successive sectarian-based governments have been unable to affect change. Even today, at the height of a financial and banking crisis, Beirut is unable to unlock $11 billion in funds pledged at the 2018 Cedar Conference because the money is conditioned on structural reforms.
There is no guarantee the new sanctions and aid cuts will pass in law. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has supported renewing waivers for Iraq in the past, as well as providing military aid to Lebanon. But the bill in its current form contains recommendations that, if passed, will take a toll on Lebanon’s security and may push Beirut further away from Washington than ever before.
Aya Iskandarani is a staff Comment writer at The National