US boosts support to Lebanese army as Beirut violence overshadows diplomat's visit

US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland decried the 'terrorists and thieves' hijacking the lives of the Lebanese people

In this photo released by the Lebanese government, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib shakes hands with US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland in Beirut on Thursday. Via AP
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A top US State Department official announced on Thursday an additional $67 million in aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) during a visit to Beirut that was overshadowed by deadly clashes in the capital.

Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, the number-three official at the State Department, led a delegation on a one-day visit to meet Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker of the House Nabih Berri.

“I'm pleased to announce an additional $67 million in new US support for the Lebanese army, bringing our total of support this year to $187 million," Ms Nuland told a press conference at the end of her visit.

The head of the LAF Joseph Aoun is scheduled to visit Washington at the end of the month, The National has learned.

The State Department said Ms Nuland also met with representatives of the Lebanese civil society.

Ms Nuland's visit came as armed clashes broke out in Beirut during a Hezbollah-led protest against the investigation into last year's massive port explosion. She re-emphasised the importance of US security support for Lebanon.

“We join the Lebanese authorities in their call for calm and de-escalation of tensions," she said.

"The health and future of Lebanon's democracy depends on the ability of its citizens to address the difficult issues ahead for their country, peacefully and through dialogue and with confidence in the rule of law."

She also highlighted US support for an independent judiciary in Lebanon and the investigation into the port explosion led by prosecutor Tarek Bitar.

Hezbollah has attacked Mr Bitar for requesting subpoenas of figures loyal to the militant group.

“A clean, impartial independent judiciary is the guarantor of all the rights... the Lebanese people deserve no less, and the victims and families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” Ms Nuland said.

Without mentioning Hezbollah by name, she said “terrorists and thieves" have for too long deprived people.

"After years of suffering all Lebanese deserve better,” she said.

The US designated Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organisation in 1997.

Asked about recent Iranian fuel shipments to Hezbollah in response to fuel shortages, she called it a “publicity stunt," with Iran offering "a bunch of trucks full of dirty stuff that is not sustainable for the Lebanese people."

Her Beirut meetings discussed a US-backed plan to help ship fuel and gas from Egypt and Jordan to Lebanon via Syria, International Monetary Fund talks, and the maritime dispute with Israel.

“We also urge prudence and accountability in the use of Lebanon's more than a billion dollars in IMF Special Drawing Rights. This money belongs to the Lebanese people and must be used for their benefit,” Ms Nuland said.

She underscored the importance of Lebanon holding free and fair elections next year.

Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, saw Beirut's security situation as an alarming sign for Washington.

“Ms Nuland witnessed today a bad scenario that Lebanon could descend into, but it also confirmed the need for the US to continue with their policy of supporting the LAF,” Ms Slim told The National.

But beyond military support, humanitarian assistance for Lebanese and Syrian refugees, and mediating the maritime negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, Ms Slim saw it as unlikely the Biden administration would get more involved in Beirut.

“They will continue outsourcing the Lebanese file to the French and regional countries that retain interest and influence in Lebanon,” she said.

Updated: October 14, 2021, 5:41 PM