US reaffirms support for Lebanon Army amid aid freeze questions

US State Department official told The National 'No Lebanese expenditures or purchases of military materiel with FMF have been delayed'

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The Trump administration has reaffirmed on Monday its support for the Lebanese Army Forces (LAF) and Security services, stressing that “no expenditures or purchases have been delayed”, without explaining if the reported freeze on $105 million in aid is still in place.

A US State Department official told The National on Monday that the US commitment to strengthening the LAF continues.

“As the sole legitimate defence arm of the Government of Lebanon, the United States remains committed to strengthening the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces to secure Lebanon’s borders, defend its sovereignty, and preserve its stability,” he said.

“The Lebanon FMF [foreign military financing] has been apportioned by the Administration.  No Lebanese expenditures or purchases of military materiel with FMF have been delayed,” he added.

It is unclear, however, if future aid is being withheld.

Reuters reported on Thursday that the Trump administration is withholding $105 million in aid to the LAF.

“The State Department told Congress on Thursday that the White House budget office and National Security Council had decided to withhold the foreign military assistance, the two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity,” the report read.

But the US official on Monday neither confirmed nor denied the report. Such hold could be temporary and possibly lifted before the delivery of the future aid is due.

“We have expressed clearly our concerns at violence or provocative actions against protesters and note efforts by the LAF and other institutions to ensure the rights and safety of the protesters,” the US official said.

A US defence official also confirmed continuity of the train and equip aid program from his department, which runs separate from the State Department program.

"There is no change to Section 333 assistance at this time," a Pentagon official told The National, referencing a section that deals with training and equipping the LAF.

Since 2005, the United States has sent an average of $70 million in aid per year to the LAF along with the train and equip program.

The back and forth reflects divisions within the administration over the future of the aid to Lebanon between hawks who favour a freeze, and the Pentagon and State who are pushing for continuity.

Lebanon has been witnessing unprecedented protests that since October 16, which have forced the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week.

In these protests, the LAF has been largely seen as a unifying force of stability across the country.

A senior US official called the upheaval “remarkable” but voiced “a concern over stability.”

In Washington’s view, the protests that were sparked by a tax on WhatsApp calls and economic and corruption problems are a “remarkable development".

“The people are speaking up clearly and have articulated their demands in a non-sectarian peaceful way,” the senior official said.

"They have largely demonstrated national unity; that they want a clean government that is accountable, undertakes reform and ends corruption.”

The Trump administration has been pushing for reforms since the Cedar conference hosted by France in April 2018 pledged more than $11 billion (Dh40,4bn) in aid for Lebanon if it underwent economic, fiscal and institutional change.

“All they had to do is reform but the government couldn’t,” the senior US official said.

Now Washington is hoping the next Cabinet will be able to institute change, and is hingeing US support on tangible reforms.

“We will support Lebanon when it takes the decision to reform. No one is going to bail out Lebanon,” the official added.

Another element of instability is recent tension on the Lebanon-Israel border in the South.

Two attacks on Israeli drones have been reported since the protests started.

But the official did not expect a military escalation.

“No one wants a war, despite the incidents we are seeing at the border,” he said.

The US, while not wishing to intervene in the Lebanese protests, is stressing the need to protect their peaceful nature.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Lebanese army and security services this week “to continue to ensure the rights and safety of the protesters".

Washington’s Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard is preparing to leave her post and the Trump administration has nominated career diplomat Dorothy Shea for the position.