US government reviews military aid to Lebanon

Concern over Hizbollah's influence as US says its funding should be used to deter militant organisations, though analysts warn that withdrawing grants could be counterproductive.

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WASHINGTON AND BEIRUT // The United States is reviewing its military aid to Lebanon as concern grows over a political stalemate that has left the country without a government for nearly three months.

The collapse in January of Saad Hariri's Western-backed administration has led to fears in Washington of an increased role for the Hizbollah-led March 8 parliamentary bloc. The United States says Hizbollah is a terrorist organisation with close ties to the Iranian government.

In a statement released by the US State Department, the government made clear that any military aid - equipment, training, or supplies - to the Lebanese Armed Forces should be used to deter terrorist organisations within Lebanon.

"Our assistance … helps augment the LAF's capabilities to provide security within Lebanon and on its borders as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. This includes a responsibility to detect, disrupt, and counter terrorist groups."

The statement did note, however, that while military aid is under review, it has not been frozen.

The United State has given the Lebanese Armed Forces an estimated US$650 million since 2006 to pay for such things as helicopter maintenance, weapons and ammunition, night-vision goggles and anti-tank missiles, according to Reuters.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said the announcement of a review comes when the prime minister-designate, Nijab Mikati, is under tremendous pressure to form a new government, including from the United States.

"One way of exerting pressure is the US government's decision to put military aid under review," he said. "But, I believe this is more symbolic than anything else. The US is not providing Lebanon with substantial military aid to begin with."

Dr Khashan said US military aid to Lebanon is focused on training and providing light arms and logistics.

A Wall Street Journal article published on Monday reported that the US had suspended arms shipments to Lebanon ahead of the review.

Mark Perry, a military and intelligence analyst, said: "I'll believe it when I see it." A freeze in arms shipments to Lebanon would be disastrous for US-Lebanese relations, Mr Perry said.

A freeze "isn't going to teach the Lebanese anything other than 'you can't count on the Americans'. It's going to drive them into the arms of our purported enemies."

But others, such as Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Programme on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argue that Washington must be wary of its weapons falling into Hizbollah's hands.

Mr Levitt said: "Because the new Lebanese government is dominated by Hizbollah … our level of comfort, and our legal constraints would make it very difficult to continue to provide arms to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which are under some level of Hizbollah control."

Ayman Jezzini, the media coordinator for the Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri, said yesterday he had been expecting the US to review its package of military aid because of Hizbollah's "illegal weapons". The Shiite group's arms have been described by Mr Hariri as a domestic threat which is "poisoning" the country's political process.

The level to which Hizbollah can exert its influence on any government formed by Mr Mikati is a topic of heated debate within Washington.

However, Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the loss of an estimated $100 million in US support - accounting for around 10 per cent of the Lebanese military's budget - would be significant. Cutting US military aid to Lebanon would have clear operational and political ramifications, he said.

"One of the repercussions would be that the Lebanese military could have to turn somewhere else [for military aid]," Dr Salem said, naming Iran and Syria as potential alternative donors. "It is more than likely that Congress will cut all or part [of the aid package]...It is a very real possibility."

Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, argues that Hizbollah's influence within Mr Mikati's cabinet will be limited by the premier-designate's pragmatism.

"The picture that is increasingly emerging out of Lebanon is that Hizbollah will operate essentially as they have de facto in the [Saad Hariri] cabinet, which is to say they will have a small share, maybe one or two ministers."

The uprisings in the Middle East have led to the ousting of two key US allies in the region and forced Washington to re-evaluate its policies toward the region.

Andrew Exum, author of the Abu Muqawama blog at the Centre for a New American security, a Washington-based think tank, said the review of US military aid to Lebanon is part of a more general review, but drew specific attention when Mr Hariri's government fell.

"You're going to see a lot of reluctance from lawmakers on Congress to continue to fund the Lebanese state in terms of security assistance, and foreign military sales simply because of the belief that the Lebanese state and Hizbollah are the same," he said.

Regardless of whether Hizbollah emerges as the strongest partner in a Lebanese cabinet, the US government would be wise to remember the lessons of the Egyptian revolution, Mr Perry said.

If the US continues its military aid to Lebanon, "we can talk to them. We can learn about them. This actually helped us quite a bit throughout the Middle East. It helped us during the Egyptian revolution. We had very good, clear friendships with the Egyptian military."

The Lebanese armed forces could not be reached for comment yesterday.