(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday the reality that Hezbollah is “part of the political process in Lebanon” has to be acknowledged, drawing fire on social media for a perceived “softening” in Washington’s approach to the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.
Hezbollah is indeed part of a power-sharing government in Beirut, but critics felt the terrorist group should not be recognized as a political actor, since its very existence as an armed militia violates U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Furthermore the U.S., like Israel and Canada but unlike some European governments, has long refused to draw a distinction between so-called military and political wings of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite organization.
The U.S. therefore designates Hezbollah – which before 9/11 was responsible for the violent deaths of more Americans than any other terror group in history – in its entirety as a FTO.
Tillerson was speaking in Jordan, one day before traveling to Lebanon to meet with the country’s Sunni prime minister, Saad al-Hariri; the Maronite Christian president, Michel Aoun; and the Shi’ite parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri. Aoun and Berri are both Hezbollah allies.
The remarks coincided with the 13th anniversary of the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed along with 21 others in a 2005 car bombing in downtown Beirut. A U.N.-backed special tribunal later indicted Hezbollah members in connection with the murders.
Addressing reporters alongside his Jordanian counterpart, Tillerson said he was heading to Lebanon “to meet with leaders in Beirut about Lebanon’s future.”
“We support a free, democratic Lebanon free of influence of others, and we know that Lebanese Hezbollah is influenced by Iran,” he continued. “This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon’s long-term future.”
“We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon,” Tillerson added.
The comments made headlines, including in Iran and Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s Al-Mahar TV ran a wire service report on its website.
On Twitter, the secretary came in for some sharp criticism.
“No. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese political process in the same way that the IRGC is part of the Iranian political process. Through fear, intimidation and violence,” tweeted Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) executive director Mark Dubowitz. “We need to counter it not recognize it.”
Dubowitz added that the terrorist group needs to be disarmed under two U.N. Security Council resolutions, “not recognized as a legitimate political actor. It is not.”
(Resolution 1559 of 2004 calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Resolution 1701 of 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.”)
“It [Hezbollah] is not part of the system, it dominates the system almost as the [IRGC] dominates Iran,” tweeted Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born conservative scholar and commentator who advised President Trump during his campaign. “Hezbollah should be disarmed under #UNSCR1559.”
Firas Maksad, director of the Arabia Foundation and an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, pointed to the timing of Tillerson’s remarks, coming even as the administration has stepped up punitive measures against Hezbollah as part of its campaign to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region.
“On Planet Tillerson, an overture to Hezbollah just as your administration is ramping up sanctions & reinvigorating a DEA investigation into the group’s criminal/drug activities, makes complete sense,” Maksad tweeted. “Go figure.”
Particularly sharp criticism came from Tony Badran, a Lebanese-born research fellow at FDD.
“Tillerson’s comment encapsulates the idiocy of the U.S. Lebanon policy, which is predicated on distinguishing between Hezbollah and Lebanon when no such distinction exists,” he wrote. “It only makes you sound stupid.”
Supporting the LAF
In Amman, Tillerson also reaffirmed U.S. support for strengthening the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), “so that there is a legitimate security force under full control of the government of Lebanon to provide the security the Lebanese people deserve.”
Israel, however, has claimed that the LAF and Hezbollah have become “inseparable.”
“The Lebanese army has turned into an integral part of Hezbollah’s command structure,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last October. “The Lebanese army has lost its independence and become an inseparable part of the Hezbollah apparatus.”
The Trump administration did not request any foreign military financing (FMF) funds for the LAF in FY 2018, but in its newly-released budget for FY 2019 it requests $50 million in FMF for the Lebanese military. (That compares to $80 million from the Obama administration in FY 2017 and $85.9 million in FY 2016.)
The administration in its budget justification said the funds “will continue to modernize the LAF and strengthen its capacity to control Lebanon’s borders and national territory; and detect, interdict, and repel extremist groups’ efforts to destabilize Lebanon.”
Later Wednesday a senior State Department official traveling with Tillerson reiterated the administration’s support for the LAF.
“The U.S. has provided extraordinary support and an unswerving commitment to building the LAF,” the official told reporters on background. “We are very pleased with the actions and progress the LAF has made. The U.S. looks forward not just to continued U.S. support but to international support for the LAF. Absolutely.”