(CNSNews.com) – American taxpayers will continue to fund the Lebanese security forces despite a decision by Saudi Arabia to cut $4 billion in military aid to a government that includes Hezbollah, the State Department has confirmed.
Spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on the Saudi decision, but said U.S. support for the Lebanese army and police would continue, noting that the U.S. has provided around $1.4 billion since 2005.
“We’re going to continue our support to the Lebanese Armed Forces [LAF] and security services [Internal Security Forces, ISF] with one objective in mind, which is to ensure that the army continues its role as a legitimate protector of Lebanon’s borders, people, including from extremist threats,” Toner told a briefing on Friday.
Earlier Friday, Saudi Arabia announced it was canceling a combined $4 billion in pledged aid to the LAF and ISF, in response to the Lebanese government’s perceived siding with Iran in a bitter Saudi-Iran rivalry that is a key factor in conflicts across the region, including the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
The tipping point was the refusal of Lebanon’s foreign minister to back a Saudi-initiated resolution, supported by all other Arab states attending an emergency meeting last month, condemning Iran for an attack on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran. (The missions were ransacked after the kingdom executed a prominent Shia cleric in early January.)
Saudi Arabia on Friday called the Lebanese stance “regrettable and unjustified” and said the aid – a $3 billion arms deal for the LAF and $1 billion to support the ISF – has been cut.
The resolution that Lebanon refused to back at the emergency meeting also classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Lebanon was represented at the Arab ministers’ meeting by Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, the head of a Lebanese Christian faction that is closely aligned with Hezbollah – which is itself part of the Shia-Sunni-Christian unity government in Beirut.
(In 2012 Bassil, then energy minister, met with a senior State Department official in Washington, prompting a top Republican lawmaker to slam the administration for engaging with “an open supporter of the Assad regime and the violent extremist group Hezbollah.”)
Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO), is responsible for hundreds of American deaths in terrorist attacks dating back to the 1980s. It is also currently part of an axis – also including Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias from Iraq and elsewhere – helping to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.
The organization’s two faces – an FTO proxy of Iran and sworn enemy of U.S. ally Israel on one hand, and an influential political party with seats in cabinet on the other – has long placed the U.S. in an awkward position as it seeks to reform and strengthen the fragile Lebanese state’s armed forces.
The LAF is widely regarded as less powerful than Hezbollah, a militia whose refusal to disarm is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
(Resolution 1559 of 2004 calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” and resolution 1701 of 2006 requires “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 Obama administration fiscal year 2017 State and Foreign Operations budget request includes $105 million in foreign military financing (FMF) for Lebanon’s LAF.
There is also a $10 million item to help Lebanon’s ISF “become more responsive to the public’s internal security needs, and enhancing the ability of Lebanon’s criminal justice institutions to work together to provide effective criminal justice and internal security services to the public.”
Other requested items for Lebanon include international military education and training, and economic support funds.
The FY2017 budget justification says the FMF funds will support the LAF’s “ability to secure the border and national territory against extremist threats, including ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and al-Nusra.” It says nothing about Hezbollah.
By contrast, the administration’s FY2015 budget justification did cite Hezbollah in that context, saying U.S. aid was designed to help a sovereign and prosperous Lebanon “which can counter Iranian, Hezbollah, and Sunni extremist influences.”
Saudi Arabia’s decision to halt the aid won support over the weekend from its Gulf allies, including the United Arab Emirates whose foreign ministry in a statement accused Hezbollah of “hijacking” Lebanon’s position.
Saudi media editorials on Sunday welcomed the decision to halt the funding, with some accusing Tehran of trying to turn Lebanon into a province of Iran.
In response to the Saudi announcement, Hezbollah said the entire world knows that the kingdom is undergoing financial difficulties, suggesting that was the real reason for its funding cut.
It said the decision underscores the reality that Saudi Arabia “sponsors and funds terrorism and stirs seditions throughout the entire Islamic and Arab world” – likely a reference to Saudi support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria.