(CNSNews.com) – A day after Lebanon’s president defended the legitimacy of the Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah, the chief of Lebanon’s U.S.-backed army on Tuesday urged his forces to stand by to face threats from “the Israeli enemy.”
Ahead of Lebanon’s independence day on Wednesday, Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander Joseph Aoun called on his troops “to be fully prepared on the southern border to face the threats from the Israeli enemy, its violations and hostile intent towards Lebanon and its people and army ...”
Earlier President Michel Aoun (no relation) criticized the Arab League for a statement accusing Hezbollah and its Iranian patron of terrorism. In an independence day message he warned the bloc of Arab states to treat Lebanon carefully and not push it “towards the fire.”
Hezbollah wields significant political and military power in Lebanon despite its continued existence as an armed entity contravening U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Israel claims that the LAF and Hezbollah – a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization – have become virtually “inseparable.”
“The Lebanese army has turned into an integral part of Hezbollah’s command structure,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last month. “The Lebanese army has lost its independence and become an inseparable part of the Hezbollah apparatus.”
Days later Education Minister Naftali Bennett warned that in any future war, Lebanese facilities would be fair game since Hezbollah is embedded in the government.
The U.S. government has long characterized the LAF as a counter-terror partner, providing it and the country’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) around $1.4 billion in aid since 2005.
The Obama administration did not follow Saudi Arabia lead when in 2016 the kingdom announced it was ending $4 billion in military aid to the LAF and ISF because of Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s coalition government.
The State Department said at the time the U.S. would continue to support the LAF and ISF “to ensure that the army continues its role as a legitimate protector of Lebanon’s borders, people, including from extremist threats.”
It gave $85.9 million in foreign military financing for the LAF in FY 2016.
The recent shock resignation of the Sunni prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, underlined again Lebanon’s instability.
In his televised resignation speech, delivered in Saudi Arabia, Hariri blamed Hezbollah and Iran for his decision and said he feared for his life. (Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a 2005 car bomb blamed by a U.N.-backed tribunal on Hezbollah.)
Hariri late Tuesday returned home, reportedly to resign formally.
When he met with Hariri at the White House last July, President Trump called Hezbollah “a menace to the Lebanese state, the Lebanese people, and the entire region.”
He also described the country as being “on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” but without referring – in his public comments at least – to Hezbollah’s participation in the government.
Trump’s FY 2018 foreign assistance budget request does not include an foreign military financing allocation for the LAF, although it does request $85 million for economic support and development fund assistance to Lebanon.
In an independence day message on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed U.S. “support for Lebanese state institutions and appreciate our close partnership in addressing shared regional challenges, particularly the fight against terrorism.”
The message made no reference to Hezbollah, Hariri’s resignation or the political crisis, but did speak of advancing Lebanon’s “sovereignty, stability, and independence.’
The State Department’s latest annual terrorism report, released last July, listed Lebanon as a “terrorist safe haven.”
“The Lebanese government did not take significant action to disarm Hezbollah or eliminate its safe havens on Lebanese territory, nor did it seek to limit Hezbollah’s travel to and from Syria to fight in support of the Assad regime or to and from Iraq,” the report stated.
It said Hezbollah wields influence over “elements” in the country’s armed services, and was so able to operate with relative impunity.
The report did acknowledge U.S. support for LAF and ISF efforts to counter terrorist threats along its border with Syria – that is, those emanating from ISIS and other Sunni jihadists fighting in the Syrian conflict, not Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s failure to disarm Hezbollah violates U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 of 2004, which calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias”; and resolution 1701 of 2006, which 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.”