Trump’s urgent Lebanon problem

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Since visiting Israel’s borders with Syria  and Lebanon late last month, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has been sounding the alarm about the growing danger of a devastating war between Israel and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

Ahead of his meeting Monday with President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that Iran and its rapidly expanding regional power, as well as its nuclear program, would be the major focus of their discussions.

Speaking Sunday on Fox News, Graham warned that the U.S. has no policy to push back Iran’s gains in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Specifically regarding Lebanon, Graham warned, “Southern Lebanon is a nightmare. It makes Gaza look stable. The IDF, the Israel Defense Force, says there are over a hundred thousand rockets and missiles in the hands of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.”

Graham continued, “Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon years ago, the United Nations was supposed to police the area. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL] has sat on the sidelines and watched Hezbollah dominate southern Lebanon with missile technology that now threatens every part of Israel. So it’s a matter of time until Israel strikes southern Lebanon.”

Last month, officers in UNIFIL — the 10,300-strong multinational force charged with preventing Hezbollah from deploying in southern Lebanon — told a French newspaperthat the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) blocks UNIFIL from fulfilling its mission. The officers explained that in undermining UNIFIL’s operations, the LAF is acting as Hezbollah’s agent.

As the Jerusalem Post reported, speaking to the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, a warrant officer from UNIFIL’s French contingent said, “In the evening we never leave the barracks because the Lebanese forces are not friendly.”

“We are caught in the aggressor’s grip. Doing the bare minimum has become a political choice,” he added.

A liaison officer with UNIFIL who recently completed his tour of duty with the force told the French newspaper cited by the Post, “When we would detect military activities in our area, especially near the Blue Line [border with Israel], the Lebanese Army would prevent us from posting observers. It is as if those decisions did not come from them. Everyone knows that Hezbollah is using the area for the next war.”

A Finnish officer serving with UNIFIL said that some of the UNIFIL forces spy for Hezbollah.

“I can assure you that Indonesian peacekeepers are constantly reporting Israeli movements to various Lebanese actors,” he said.

He also said that some of UNIFIL’s 585 local employees “do not hide their Hezbollah membership.”

The LAF routinely pays homage to, and publicizes its ties with, Hezbollah. For instance, last July, 150 LAF officer cadets visited the Hezbollah museum in the southern Lebanese town of Mleeta. The museum features bombed-out IDF tanks and helmets, and replicas of Hezbollah’s underground bunkers and command posts.

The LAF cadets’ visit to the Hezbollah museum occurred a week after LAF forces participated in a Hezbollah-commanded military operation against a militant group in Syria formerly known as the Nusra Front. As Tony Badran from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote at the time, “It was Hezbollah that laid out the battle plans … including what role the LAF would play in it. And it was Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah who announced the impending start of the joint operation with the LAF during a televised appearance.”

Last April, the LAF accompanied armed Hezbollah forces along the border with Israel.

And last week, LAF Commander General Joseph Aoun threatened to go to war against Israel. Aoun said the LAF “maintains its readiness on the southern border to confront any Israeli military aggression or any attempt to encroach on parts of the territorial and maritime borders.”

Aoun added, “The army has the will to defend Lebanese rights through all the available assets and means, no matter how much the enemy’s threats and provocations may escalate.”

Israeli military commanders and political leaders alike are unanimous in their judgment that Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah. Hezbollah controls both the Lebanese government and the LAF.

The Sunni Arab states agree. At an Arab League summit in Cairo last November, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa said that Hezbollah is “in total control” of Lebanon.

He added, “Iran’s biggest arm in the region at the moment is the terrorist Hezbollah arm.”

On Sunday, Bahrain provided further evidence that Hezbollah forces are controlled by Iran. The Bahraini government announced it had arrested 116 members of an armed network established and supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). The members of the network were charged with attacking Bahraini forces, government officials, and oil facilities.

The government statement said that 48 of the 116 people arrested had received training at IRGC facilities in Iran and their affiliated locations in Iraq and Lebanon.

The threat Hezbollah poses to Israel from southern Lebanon is the greatest threat that Israel now faces. And it is made much worse by the fact that through its LAF subsidiary, Hezbollah is the fifth largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the world.

Since 2006 — the end of the Second Lebanon War — the U.S. has transferred advanced arms to the (LAF) worth $1.5 billion. The U.S. has also trained 32,000 LAF troops and officers.

Over the past 18 months, the shipments have included a startling array of advanced weapons, including: six A-29 Super Tucanos aircraft six new MD 530G light attack helicopters, six new Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles, 32 Bradley M1A2 fighting vehicles, 200 MK-19 Automatic Grenade Launchers, and 827 Copperhead artillery rounds.

Last August, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard announced that over the previous 12 months, the U.S. had provided the LAF with 40 M198 howitzers; 50 armored Humvees; an armed Cessna aircraft, with Hellfire missiles; 55 mortar systems; 50 Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers; 1100 marching guns, including 800 50-caliber machine guns; 4,000 M4 carbines; over half a million rounds of ammunition; 320 night vision devices and thermal sights; and 360 secure communications radios.

As Badran noted at the time, Richard’s list corresponded with Hezbollah’s wish list. Indeed, last month federal authorities charged three men with illegally exporting drone parts and other material to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The three men reportedly “conspired and attempted to export goods including inertial measurement units suitable for use in drones, a jet engine, piston engines and recording binoculars to Hezbollah in Lebanon from 2009 to 2013.”

In other words, between 2009 and 2013, the three Hezbollah agents in the U.S. conspired to provide Hezbollah with precisely the armaments the U.S. has just provided for Hezbollah’s front group in Lebanon – the Lebanese military.

Rather than accept the abundant evidence that the LAF is controlled by Hezbollah, like the Obama administration, the Trump administration insists that the LAF and the Lebanese government are independent institutions and that the U.S. supports both as a counterweight to Hezbollah.

Speaking at a security conference in Tel Aviv in January, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield stunned his audience when he said, “We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is the only legitimate force in Lebanon.”

He added that the LAF “could well serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s desire to expand its own influence there, as well as Iran’s reach in Lebanon.”

Likewise, during his trip to the Middle East last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to indicate that the Trump administration accepts Hezbollah’s legitimacy in Lebanon. Tillerson said, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they [Hezbollah] are also part of the political process in Lebanon.”

After giving a nod to Hezbollah, Tillerson travelled to Beirut. There, he was subjected to public humiliation as Lebanon’s Hezbollah-controlled president Michael Aoun kept Tillerson waiting uncomfortably in front of cameras before he came out to greet him.

During his meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saed Hariri, Tillerson ignored the fact that Hezbollah is the controlling faction inside the Lebanese government and that it enjoys a collaborative — indeed, a commanding — relationship with the LAF. Pretending these hard truths away, while clinging to the myth of Lebanese governmental and military independence, Tillerson said, “Lebanon will never be truly strong and stable as long as Hezbollah continues to act outside the confines of the Lebanese government. Its provocations at the behest of its regional masters like Iran ultimately put the Lebanese people at risk.”

He added, “It is unacceptable for a militia like Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government. The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese Armed Forces.” The U.S., Tillerson said, “has considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization for over two decades.”

Trump administration officials tell Breitbart News that despite America’s continuous supply of advanced weapons to the LAF, President Trump will not bat an eyelash if Israel destroys all of the weapons the U.S. has supplied Lebanon in a future war.

But there are two problems with that assurance. First, Israeli military officials are concerned that America’s vast investment in the myth of LAF independence will cause Washington to demand that Israel not strike LAF facilities and forces in the coming war with Hezbollah. Second, the very fact that the military forces arrayed against Israel in Lebanon are equipped with advanced U.S. weapons systems means that the threat against Israel is much greater than it otherwise would have been.

In other words, American military assistance to the LAF is not possible to dismiss. It significantly degrades Israel’s military position vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon.

Senator Graham told Fox News that he is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this week to discuss his concerns about Iran’s growing control over Syria and the threat to Israel in southern Lebanon.

Graham said, “I will meet with General Mattis and tell him that seven senators – four Democrats and three Republicans — believe that Israel is in a no-win situation. The United Nations has failed miserably to protect Israel’s border regarding Lebanon and southern Lebanon. And it’s just a matter of time until Israel has to use military force. And the message is: You need to come up with a policy not just to destroy ISIL but to counter Iran.”

In other words, a year into the Trump administration, there is bipartisan support for Trump and his advisers to end Obama’s policy of supporting Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, and stand with Israel.

It is well past time — and indeed, it is urgent — that the administration heed the message.

Originally published at Breitbart.com.

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