(CNSNews.com) – The Trump administration is reportedly withholding $105 million in military aid from Lebanon, a move that comes after Israel called on Western countries to make assistance conditional on the Lebanese government clamping down on Hezbollah’s attempts to acquire precision guided missiles.
Reuters cited two unnamed U.S. officials as saying the State Department had informed Congress Thursday of the decision to halt the assistance, but providing no reason for the decision.
The State Department referred queries to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Queries overnight to OMB brought no response by press time.
U.S. funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has long frustrated some Mideast policy experts, given the State Department’s own assessment that Lebanese authorities have taken no significant steps to disarm Hezbollah.
The Iranian-backed terrorist group is more powerful than the LAF, in the assessment of Israeli officials. Hezbollah also operates as a political party, with lawmakers in parliament and ministers in the national cabinet.
Despite concerns about collusion – Israeli officials have claimed that Hezbollah and the LAF have become virtually “inseparable” – U.S. administrations for years have characterized the LAF as an important counter-terror partner.
The U.S. has accordingly provided the LAF with more than $1.7 billion in military aid since 2006.
The State Department describes the assistance as “a key component of our policy to reinforce Lebanon’s sovereignty and secure its borders, counter internal threats, and build up its legitimate state institutions.”
But while it praises the LAF for its efforts against ISIS terrorists in Lebanon, the Beirut government’s record against Hezbollah is poor.
“The government of Lebanon did not take significant action to disarm Hezbollah, even though Hezbollah maintained its weapons in defiance of UNSCR 1701,” the State Department said in its most recent terrorism report.
(Security Council resolution 1701, adopted in 2006, calls for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”)
“The government was unable to limit Hezbollah’s travel to and from Iraq or Syria to fight in support of the Assad regime,” the report continued. “Hezbollah controlled access to parts of the country and had influence over some elements within Lebanon’s security services.”
Hezbollah and its allies together control at least 67 seats in the 128-seat national legislature. The country’s current president – the post is largely a ceremonial one – as well as its influential parliamentary speaker and foreign minister are all Hezbollah allies.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is not, resigned on Tuesday, after two weeks of mass demonstrations by citizens protesting economic grievances and political corruption. President Michel Aoun has asked him to stay on in a caretaker capacity.
The Trump administration has targeted Hezbollah with a number of sanctions, and just this week the Treasury Department convened a first gathering – on the sidelines of the World Bank/IMF fall meetings – of a partnership of more than 30 countries designed to fight Hezbollah’s global financial networks.
If the reports are confirmed, it is not immediate clear exactly which funding is being withheld from Lebanon. The administration in fiscal year 2019 requested $152 million in total funding for Lebanon, including $85 million in economic support and development funding (ESDF), $50 million in foreign military financing (FMF), and $2.75 million for International Military Education and Training (IMET).
In the administration’s FY 2020 budget request, the amounts are $62.2 million in ESDF, $50 million in FMF and $3 million for IMET.
‘Precision guided missiles’
Israeli Channel 13 journalist Barak Ravid reported overnight that the foreign ministry in Jerusalem instructed Israeli ambassadors several weeks ago to urge host countries to stop aid to Lebanon as long as Hezbollah remains a part of the government.
Ravid said Israel has urged countries to condition aid on the Lebanese government “acting against Hezbollah’s precision missiles project.”
According to the Israeli Defense Forces, Hezbollah has since 2013 been trying to get hold of precision guided missiles – a weapon which the IDF describes as “a projectile equipped with a highly advanced navigation system enabling it to strike its target within an accuracy of a few meters.”
Until 2015, the terrorist group tried to obtain ready-to-use precision missiles from Iran, via Syria, but airstrikes attributed to Israel foiled those efforts, it says.
The strategy shifted in 2016, with Hezbollah attempting to smuggle missile parts into Lebanon – by land via Syria, on scheduled civilian flights, or by sea – for assembly inside the country.
This year, the IDF says, Hezbollah began building missile manufacturing and conversion facilities at various locations inside Lebanon.
On August 25, two drones crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, with one falling to earth and the other exploding in midair. Hezbollah threatened to retaliate for what it called an Israeli attack.
Days later, the IDF made public the names of three senior officers in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Qods Force whom it said were involved in the Hezbollah missile program.
On Thursday, IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus reported on Twitter that an anti-aircraft missile had been launched from Lebanese territory towards an IDF drone. He said it was not hit. Hezbollah later confirmed it had targeted the drone over southern Lebanon with “appropriate weapons.”