(CNSNews.com) – Iran’s ambassador in Beirut met with the head of Lebanon’s national army on Tuesday and offered Tehran’s help, a day after a senior U.S. lawmaker announced a temporary hold on U.S. assistance to the Lebanese force.
Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi and LAF commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji discussed “recent Israeli aggression against Lebanese territory,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.
Kahwaji thanked Iran for its “readiness to help Lebanon’s army facing the Zionists’ aggression,” it added.
Earlier, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman appealed for “friendly” nations to supply the advanced weapons needed by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), following calls for Washington to cut its aid after an Aug. 3 skirmish along the Lebanon-Israel border.
An LAF sniper shot and killed an Israeli officer observing tree-clearing on the Israeli side of the U.N.-recognized “Blue Line” border. In return fire, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) killed two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.
The clash prompted some U.S. lawmakers to question continued U.S. assistance to the LAF. They are concerned that U.S.-supplied weapons may have been used in the shooting and about possible LAF collaboration with Hezbollah.
The Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi’ite militia also known as “the Resistance” is the dominant military power in southern Lebanon, and has refused U.N. Security Council demands to disarm. It is regarded by the U.S. government as a top-tier foreign terrorist organization.
On Monday, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Howard Berman announced a hold on aid to the LAF.
“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the Lebanese Armed Forces – and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” he said in a statement.
Fellow Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on State and foreign operations, also announced a hold on 2010 military assistance to Lebanon.
Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) voiced concern that the lines between Hezbollah and the LAF had become “blurred.”
The U.S. Congress earlier approved $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon for 2010, and the administration has requested a further $100 million for 2011.
‘The army is ready to engage’
U.S. equipping and training of the LAF since 2006 – when Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war – is aimed at strengthening the Western-backed Lebanese government, but exactly what the U.S. expects of the LAF is seen differently in Washington and Beirut.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison said in a farewell statement Friday that the aid “is focused on supporting the Lebanese state to increase its ability to exercise its sovereignty over the entire country.”
During a recent visit to Beirut, U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Alexander Vershbow said the funding would “help the LAF maintain security, protect Lebanon’s borders against smuggling, and prevent militias and other non-state actors from using violence to undermine the [government’s] authority.”
And the incoming head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, spoke recently of the benefits of U.S. funding to the LAF in providing “an even-handed counterweight to the influences of Syria and Hezbollah.”
But the view from Beirut is different.
Since elections in 2009 Hezbollah has held 13 parliamentary seats and leads an opposition bloc that has 57 seats in the 128-member legislature. Hezbollah and its allies also control one-third of the 30 cabinet seats in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s “national unity” government.
That government’s policy statement implicitly supports Hezbollah’s right to keep its weapons, by upholding “the right of Lebanon, its people, its army and its Resistance to liberate” territory adjacent to the border with Israel which Lebanon claims.
Similarly, in its official doctrine, the force led by Kahwaji describes Israel as “the enemy” and says that Hezbollah “has been supported by the government, the army, and the civilians.”
Experts say the national army’s composition is largely a reflection of the country’s sectarian makeup – Shi’ite, Sunni and Maronite – and that the LAF would never act against Hezbollah as that would amount to turning on the Shi’ite community.
Kahwaji regularly meets with representatives of various political factions and last Thursday – two days after the border clash – he held talks with Hezbollah lawmakers.
The Shi’ite group, which said its fighters were ready to intervene against the IDF if requested to do so by the LAF, has been effusive in its praise of the “heroic” LAF soldiers who engaged the Israelis.
“All calculations from now on will be built upon the notion that the Lebanese army is ready to engage in confrontations,” said Mohammed Raad, the Hezbollah lawmaker who led the delegation in the meeting with the LAF commander.
“The Resistance will support the army and protect it with all its strength, because we believe that this army is supportive to the people and Resistance, and is protecting the country,” Hezbollah political bureau member Khodor Noureddine said in a weekend speech.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Tuesday that U.S. concerns about Hezbollah were well-known.
“We recognize in recent years you have key examples of where a sub element within Lebanese society has drawn that country into conflict,” he told a briefing. “That’s expressly why we think that the solution for Lebanon in terms of dealing with an armed element like Hezbollah is, in fact, to improve its own capabilities and professionalize its military so that it can extend its writ to areas that might not be fully under government control.”
As for Iran’s offer, Crowley said that was “expressly the reason why we believe that continuing support to the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese military is in our interest.”
“We think that activities, directly or indirectly, by Iran actually compromise Lebanese sovereignty,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons that we’ve worked hard to build an effective relationship with the Lebanese Government and to help expand the capabilities of the government and thereby improve its sovereignty over its territory.”
The border clash comes at a time of heightened concerns of a new war.
“Hezbollah is attempting to take advantage of the incident to tighten its relationship with the LAF,” Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on Monday.
Hezbollah statements in support of the army were “another indication that Hezbollah intends to enlist the LAF to fight by its side in the event of another conflict with Israel,” he said.
Aram Nerguizian, resident scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that no player in Lebanon wants another war with Israel, and a future conflict would be seen in Lebanon as a “defensive” war in the face of an IDF attack.
“In the event of such a perceived defensive war, it is clear the LAF and Hezbollah will coordinate at a minimum on civil defense, logistics and battlespace management, and at most on the execution of a mix of conventional and asymmetric defensive military operations in a war of attrition,” he said.
“It is unclear what the LAF’s role would be. Arguably if there were another Israeli-Hezbollah war, and if the LAF were to be involved, much if not most of the LAF’s targetable assets would be hit and destroyed – including recent U.S. military aid.”