According to the Israeli media, during his meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels last Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for the U.S. to impose an economic embargo on Lebanon.
Pompeo reportedly rejected Netanyahu’s request.
The meeting between the two men took place on the eve of Israel’s initiation of Operation Northern Shield last Tuesday. The operation is a military effort geared towards sealing Hezbollah’s offensive subterranean attack tunnels. It follows Israel’s stunning revelation that it had discovered the locations of Hezbollah’s attack tunnels, perhaps Hezbollah’s most secret undertaking.
According to Netanyahu, Hezbollah launched its offensive tunnel project in 2014. The existence of the tunnel program was known to almost no one in the organization.
Hezbollah’s tunnels traverse the border between Lebanon and Israel. Hezbollah reportedly intended to have the tunnels serve as a means to invade Israeli territory rapidly and undetected. It is the declared goal of Hezbollah to conquer northern Israel in its next war against the Jewish state.
The Trump administration’s rejection of Israel’s request to impose economic sanctions on Lebanon signals that it supports Israel’s efforts to neutralize the threat that Hezbollah poses, with its powerful army and massive arsenal of short and long range missiles. But — like the Bush and Obama administrations before it — it rejects Israel’s interpretation of the relations between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government and armed forces.
The disparity between the U.S. and Israeli positions on the nature of Hezbollah’s relationship with the Lebanese government and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) emerged during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. At that time, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded that Israel not attack Lebanese government targets. This despite the government’s open support for Hezbollah and the LAF’s assistance to Hezbollah during the war, particularly through the provision of targeting data for Hezbollah missile crews.
In the aftermath of the war, acting on the basis of its assertion that the LAF is an independent institution, the U.S. began massively arming and training the LAF. This policy, adopted by the Bush administration, was expanded substantially under the Obama administration. That owed in part to then-President Barack Obama’s desire to present Iran and its Hezbollah proxy as responsible regional actors in light of their opposition to the so-called Islamic State in Syria.
Throughout the years, Israel has maintained that the Lebanese government and the LAF are effectively controlled by Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy force. Its position is backed up by facts.
The first relevant fact is that the LAF is controlled by the Lebanese government. And the Lebanese government has been effectively controlled by Hezbollah since 2008.
Buoyed by its domestic popularity after its war against Israel, in 2008, Hezbollah staged an effective coup against the government. Its forces took over Western Beirut from government-controlled forces, laid siege to government offices, and shut down government-sponsored media outlets. Hezbollah acted after the Lebanese government sought to end Hezbollah’s effective control over the Beirut International Airport.
In light of their cooperation with with Hezbollah in its war against Israel in 2006, it wasn’t surprising that in 2008, the LAF refused to defend the government from Hezbollah. The government was forced to back down.
Hezbollah reasserted its control over the airport. It received effective veto power over all government decisions. And the government approved a new elections law that paved the way for Hezbollah’s victory in the 2009 elections.
Moreover, LAF alignment with Hezbollah has increased over the years. In August 2017, LAF forces – assisted by U.S. special forces – fought under Hezbollah command in border battles with Islamic State forces. As Tony Badran from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has noted, the LAF has received 10,500 alerts from UNIFIL – the UN’s international force in Lebanon — regarding suspicious maritime shipments. The LAF’s naval forces never managed to find anything objectionable in any of them. And at Beirut International Airport, under the LAF’s watchful eye, Iran is openly transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
In last May’s elections, Hezbollah candidates and candidates in parties under Hezbollah’s control won the majority of seats in the parliament. True, due to arguments over the portfolios Hezbollah wants, and over Hezbollah’s demand that one of its Sunni allies receive a cabinet position, the new government has yet to be formed. But it is patently clear that whenever the government is formed, Hezbollah will control it.
Indeed, Hezbollah’s decision to run a list of Sunni candidates was an open show of contempt for Hariri. The Sunni candidates backed by Hezbollah were an open challenge to Hariri’s position as leader of Lebanon’s Sunni population.
And yet, despite all of this, like the Bush and Obama administrations before it, the Trump administration adamantly insists that the Lebanese government and the LAF are independent state entities that operate independently from Hezbollah.
There are two ways to look at that position. The first is through the narrow lens of Lebanon.
Given the balance of forces between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government and LAF, when viewed solely in the context of Lebanon, the U.S. position is dangerously irrational.
Hezbollah effectively swallowed Lebanon in 2008. Rather than recognize this reality and treat Lebanon as a terror enclave with no will of its own, the U.S. clings to the delusion that it can make Hezbollah weaker by pretending it isn’t as strong as it really is. Certainly, the U.S. military assistance to the LAF, including the transfer of $1.7 billion worth of weapons to Lebanon since 2006 ($235 million in 2017 alone), is difficult to defend. As Hezbollah’s tunnels into Israel show, at a minimum, all the U.S. military support for the LAF hasn’t enabled it to assert its control over Lebanon’s border with Israel.
The second way to look at Lebanon is through a regional lens. From that perspective, the campaign to destroy Hezbollah is part of a wider campaign against its state controller – Iran. By this way of thinking, Lebanon is a captive province of the Iranian empire. Hezbollah is Iran’s military governor of occupied Lebanon. Under this thinking, Hezbollah’s future is tied to the Iranian regime’s future.
During a visit to Israel last month, John Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, said that U.S. sanctions against Iran were putting a squeeze on Iran’s ability to finance Hezbollah. In his words, “Now that we have reimposed our sanctions, we are in a position to really go after all the revenue streams Iran uses to fund Hamas and Hezbollah, its missile proliferation – all the threats to peace that Iran presents.”
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Iran underwrites Hezbollah operations to the tune of $700 million a year. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah bragged in 2016 that Iran pays for all of Hezbollah’s outlays. In his words, “Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets come from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
In his meeting with Netanyahu last week, Pompeo placed the issue at hand – Lebanon and Hezbollah – in the context of the U.S.’s broader efforts against Iran.
According to a State Department report on their meeting, Pompeo said the administration is committed to “confronting the totality of the Iranian regime’s threats through maximum pressure.”
It is possible that the U.S. believes that its sanctions will force Iran to curtail its funding to Hezbollah in a fundamental way. In the event that this happens, Hezbollah will be forced to seek other sources of funding for its vast operations in Lebanon, as well as in Syria and Iraq. To this end, Hezbollah is already demanding control of Lebanon’s Health Ministryand other ministries with large disposable budgets in the next government.
According to analysts, Hezbollah wants the Health Ministry because it can use most of its $338 million budget to buy public support. Moreover it can provide free health coverage to its fighters and their families. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the war in Syria. At least double that number were wounded. To maintain the loyalty of its forces and their families, Hezbollah needs to support them by, among other things, providing them with free health care.
Recognizing the importance of the provision of health care to Hezbollah fighters, the U.S. has warned Hariri and Aoun not bow to Hezbollah’s demands. Giving Hezbollah the health ministry, or any upgrade in its government portfolios would cause a U.S. economic embargo and end U.S. support for the LAF, the U.S. warned last month.
More generally, the administration may well believe that by drying out Iranian funding for Hezbollah through sanctions on Iran, and so requiring Hezbollah to siphon government funds from Lebanon to underwrite its operations, it can break the bonds between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. It is much easier to make people do what you tell them when you don’t need their money than when you do.
Then, too, if Hezbollah funds its operations from the Lebanese government budget, Hezbollah will be forced to come out of the shadows and acknowledge that it is Lebanon, and that its war against Israel is a Lebanese government war. That, in turn, could severely undermine Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon. According to Israeli Middle East expert Dr. Guy Bechor, only 53 percent of Lebanese approve of Hezbollah.
That support is likely to plummet if Hezbollah places Lebanon under the gun of U.S. sanctions. Lebanon’s economy stands on the brink of collapse. Lebanon’s public debt is 150 percent of GDP. Its unemployment rate is just under 50 percent. A third of the population lives in poverty. According to Bechor, more Lebanese live outside the country than inside of it. Since 2015, nearly 800,000 Lebanese have emigrated — out of a population of 6 million.
To ensure solvency, the government hopes to secure an International Monetary Fund loan of $11 billion. But it cannot secure the funds until it has a government capable of approving the austerity measures the IMF has required. And if it forms a government that upgrades Hezbollah, the U.S. can block the IMF from approving the loan.
In other words, if Hezbollah begins using the Lebanese budget as its cash cow, it will bankrupt the budget. And the public will hate it for doing so.
Already there seem to be breaches forming in government support for Hezbollah. Following Israel’s revelation that it had discovered Hezbollah’s offensive tunnels, and was sealing them off inside of Israel, President Aoun signalled support for Israel’s position. This is significant because Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah.
It wasn’t always this way. Until 2006, Aoun opposed Hezbollah and during the 1980s he was an ally of Israel’s. Aoun left Lebanon in 1991 and led the Maronite opposition to Hezbollah and Syria from Paris. In 2006, in the aftermath of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, he returned to Lebanon as a Hezbollah client.
Last week, he seemed to be moving away from Hezbollah when he made a statement about Israel’s efforts to seal Hezbollah’s tunnels that was just shy of openly supportive of Israel’s efforts.
In his words, “We certainly took this issue seriously – the presence of tunnels at the border – and Israel informed us via the United States that it does not have aggressive intentions and it will continue to work on its territory.
“We also do not have aggressive intentions…We are ready to remove the causes of the dispute, but after we obtain a final report and we set out the matters that need to be dealt with.”
Bechor maintains that Aoun’s statement is a sign that he is feeling less beholden to Hezbollah than in the past.
Aoun said this week that he intends to break the impasse on government talks so that a new government can take office as quickly as possible.
If the U.S. is in fact operating under the assumption that it can use its assistance to the Lebanese government as a means to undercut Hezbollah’s power and freedom of action, the first test of the strategy will come when the government is formed. If Hezbollah or its political client parties take control over ministries involved in social funding, the U.S. will be put in a position of either following through on its threats to cut off funding to Lebanon and its support for the LAF, and joining Israel in its assessment of the Lebanese government and LAF as appendages of Hezbollah, or losing its credibility.
If Hezbollah stands down and accepts a lesser role, then the U.S. will be able to keep up the pressure, with Israel using its operations on the ground to undercut Hezbollah’s standing internationally and domestically.
Both the narrow approach and the wide-lens approach to Hezbollah are fraught with risks. But if the regional approach works, it could collapse Hezbollah while averting a devastating war.