Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Mar. 29, 2016, 2:46pm

By now it is clear that the increasing economic and political pressure placed on Hezbollah by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a not so subtle attempt to undermine the influence of Iran on the Middle East. As “foot-soldiers” of the Iranian army, Hezbollah has become instrumental in serving Iranian interests in the Syrian Civil War, which include support for Russia and the Assad regime. While GCC sanctions placed on Hezbollah are not new, the decision to designate Hezbollah’s Lebanese core a terrorist group is certainly new, as is Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend financial aid to the Lebanese Army. President Obama warned Saudi Arabia that withholding aid to Lebanon could further destabilize the region, yet not everyone in Washington is on that same page.

In a recent congressional hearing, “Hezbollah’s Growing Threat Against National Security Interests in the Middle East,” Tony Badran, a Research Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, urged lawmakers not to consider the collapse of the Lebanese economy when placing sanctions on Hezbollah. Badran’s argument is that the U.S. cannot afford to “use kid gloves” because of the persistent complicity between the Lebanese Armed Forces and the military wing of Hezbollah. On the other hand, testimony by Dr. Daniel Byman, Professor of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Director of Research at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, adamantly disagrees. He argues that Hezbollah’s influence on Lebanon, and in the region, has waned in the years following their entry into the Syrian Civil War. Byman further argues that we cannot afford to send Lebanon into further economic, militaristic, and political freefall, and we most certainly agree.

The subcommittee hearing, designed to focus on the threat Hezbollah poses to U.S. interests, quickly lapsed into a difference in opinion over what should be done about Lebanon. According to Badran, “The partnership between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah has grown to such a degree that it is now meaningful to speak of the LAF as an auxiliary force in Hezbollah’s war effort.” For example, there are reports that information shared by American intelligence with the LAF ended up in the hands of Hezbollah. Thus, according to Badran, the U.S. needs to assess whether its support of the LAF will sustain Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanon. LAF crimes listed by Badran include: the LAF have raided Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, rounded up Sunni people and detained them, and arrested officers in the Free Syrian Army found in Lebanon. But Badran downplays the extreme crisis that Lebanon currently faces as a result of the Syrian Civil War, and the intense pressure that the LAF face every day: massive sectarian violence in Lebanon as refugees fight with nationals for limited resources; extreme poverty; a lack of space to place people where they can be monitored safely; shanty towns that spring up overnight in every area of the city; and a crime rate that has surpassed anything that the Lebanese people have experienced in recent history.

The LAF, according to Dr. Byman, is much less complicit in the activities of Hezbollah than it was before the Syrian Civil War began. In 2000, Hezbollah garnered nationwide support when they fought against Israeli troops in Lebanon and ultimately succeeded in expelling them from the country. This was a political high-point for Hezbollah as, despite their obvious Shia foundation, the two forces were able to fight together in mutual interest of Lebanon’s security. Indeed, even with its Shia leanings, Hezbollah claimed to be non-sectarian and to work in the interests of all citizens be they Sunni, Shia, Christian, or Druze. But by the summer of 2006, support for Hezbollah began to wane in Lebanon due to their instigation of yet another war with Israel, which ultimately crippled the economy in Lebanon and destroyed the capital of Beirut.

By the time Hezbollah entered into the Syrian Civil War in 2011 their image was already failing amongst Sunni and Christian Lebanese citizens as well as in the eyes of the weather-beaten Lebanese government. As Daniel Byman argues, Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian Civil War has only further undermined their position in Lebanon. Where Hezbollah was once able to claim that they were a non-sectarian group, who had all of Lebanon’s interests at heart, the Syrian Civil War ultimately proved that their political and military might would only be used to further the interests of the Shia population in Lebanon and Iranian interests in the Middle East. Fighting on the side of the Alawite government in Syria and against the Sunni rebel groups facing oppression under that government, caused the Sunni population in Lebanon to completely reject Hezbollah, as evidenced by the 2015 Sunni bombing of a Hezbollah stronghold in Southern Beirut. While the LAF once admired Hezbollah for being a strong anti-Israeli force, they now take issue with the terror group for intervening in Syria.

The LAF and Hezbollah are completely different entities and should not be conflated either ideologically or militarily. To quote Byman, “the LAF is not strong enough to crack down on [Hezbollah], and should it do so, it would further split the already divided country.” The LAF does not have the weapons that Hezbollah has amassed with Russian and Iranian support, nor the financial endorsement of Iran, nor the experience that Hezbollah has gained in fighting the Civil War in Syria. To say that the LAF and the Hezbollah military are the same is a dangerous proposition. The Lebanese often credit the LAF as the only thing standing in the way of a sectarian war in Lebanon because, by law, the LAF must employ an equal number of Christians and Muslims and by custom has representation from Shia, Sunni, and Druze sects. Cutting off aid to the LAF will only strengthen Hezbollah’s stronghold in Lebanon, and further divide the country along religious lines.

As Daniel Byman is suggesting, the U.S. should aid in helping build up the LAF, and thereby strengthen the Lebanese state rather than watching Lebanon fail as a result of Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut $4 billion in aid. Strengthening the Lebanese state will undermine the support of Hezbollah who only came to power in the first place because Lebanon was too weak to fight off Israel on its own. Now is the time to provide support, while the opinion of Hezbollah is low in Lebanon and in the GCC, before Hezbollah picks another fight with Israel in order to boost its image once more amongst the Lebanese people.  

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