Washington Free Beacon, November 17, 2017 - U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned that American military aid to the Lebanese army is arming the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, which has been amassing a large cache of advanced arms on Israel's border, according to multiple current and former U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.
Following the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who fled the country and disclosed that Hezbollah controls the entirety of Lebanon, the U.S. government has continued its support for the Lebanese military, which multiple sources say has long been under the thumb of Hezbollah militants.
The Trump administration's State Department is coming under increased pressure from lawmakers and other foreign policy insiders to halt all military aid to Lebanon in light of Hariri's resignation and new evidence that Hezbollah is benefiting from the American arms and aid.
Multiple U.S. officials and other national security insiders who spoke to the Free Beacon about the situation criticized the Trump administration for continuing a host of policies that they say have emboldened Iran's grip on the region, including in Syria and Iraq, where U.S. arms have recently been detected going to Iranian-backed militia groups.
'It is clear that the State Department and [Defense Department] operate on the false construct that Lebanese Hezbollah and the Lebanese State are two distinct entities when in reality the information available to decision makers points to the dominance of Hezbollah within the state,' one former senior U.S. defense official familiar with the matter disclosed to the Free Beacon.
'Our Gulf allies and the Israelis are intimately familiar with the internal dynamics of Lebanon and clearly understand that Hezbollah is the defacto Lebanese state today, but we refuse to acknowledge this unfortunate reality even when confronted with obvious evidence,' said the source, who would only discuss the sensitive information on background.
Accusations that the Trump administration is helping to preserve Hezbollah's grip on Lebanon come just days after a large, bipartisan delegation of lawmakers petitioned the Trump administration to present them with a plan on how it will stop Iran's growing military presence in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has been building weapons factories that arm Hezbollah.
The situation is said to have fueled ongoing diplomatic tensions between the Trump administration and regional allies such as Israel, which has warned for some time that Iran's presence across the region is emboldening Hezbollah and setting the stage for a brutal regional war.
Congressional officials are already examining ways to force the Trump administration into using current sanctions laws on the books to halt all U.S. aid to the Lebanese military, which these sources say is fully under Hezbollah's control.
'The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri is the latest consequence of Iran's increasingly pervasive influence in Lebanon through its terrorist proxy Hezbollah,' Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), said in recent remarks. 'Given these developments, it is time for the United States to reassess the military assistance we provide to Lebanon, including to the Lebanese Armed Forces, and conduct a formal review of our strategy there.'
Rep. Brian Mast (R., Fla.), a combat veteran and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Free Beacon in a recent interview that Congress must play a more active role in reassessing U.S. military aid to Lebanon in light of the situation.
'What can be done can be undone and maybe nobody wanted to undo this for the last eight years,' Mast said, referring to U.S. aid programs to Lebanese forces 'This is exactly the role that foreign affairs is meant to play.'
It remains unclear what steps the Trump administration is willing to take.
Current and former U.S. officials who spoke to the Free Beacon about the situation said the State and Defense Departments continue to operate under the false belief that Lebanon can be separated from Hezbollah.
'It's time for the U.S. to cease supporting this mirage of a Lebanon as an independent state given the penetration and dominant influence of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah,' the Defense source said.
A White House National Security Council spokesperson denied that Hezbollah has benefitted from any U.S. assistance to Lebanon's Armed Forces, telling the Free Beacon the U.S. government has emphasized there 'there must be absolutely zero cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah.'
'The United States is focussed on continuing aid to the LAF to strengthen it and ensure that it alone is the sole defender of Lebanon,' according to the NSC official. 'The United States remains committed to strengthening Lebanon’s legitimate government institutions, including the LAF.'
The administration official praised the LAF as a 'well-trained, well equipped, and fully capable fighting force' that has been legitimized by U.S. aid, which has topped $1.5 billion since 2006.
'Many of the highest ranking officers in the LAF have attended U.S. professional military education courses at various points in their careers, building professionalism in the LAF’s officer corps,' according to the NSC official, who maintained 'U.S. training and weapons' have helped mitigate 'the destabilizing effects of the Syrian conflict.'
State Department officials declined to comment on the situation, only telling the Free Beacon that they 'must refer all questions regarding the presence of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia to the governments of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.'
The Treasury Department, in comments to the Free Beacon, said the United States has multiple sanctions in place against Hezbollah.
One senior congressional official familiar with the efforts to thwart Iran's regional takeover told the Free Beacon the Trump administration must immediately impose new sanctions on Hezbollah and halt U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which have already been accused of letting these weapons flow to Hezbollah.
'The United States must counter Iran's growing control of Lebanon through its terrorist proxy Hezbollah through enforcing and imposing new sanctions to dry up the group's ability to finance its terrorist operations,' said the official, who would only speak on background about the efforts.
'Furthermore, the U.S. must ensure that the progress against ISIS does not distract us from countering and stopping Iran's goal to fill this vacuum to further threaten our allies in the region, especially Israel,' the official said. 'This step should therefore include reassessing whether U.S. military assistance is in U.S. national security interests and take additional steps to ensure the assistance that has already been provided does not unintentionally fall into the wrong hands.'
The situation has become particularly pressing in light of recent accusations by many leading lawmakers that the United States also has played a role in arming Iranian-backed militia fighters in Iraq, where the American military has been running a program to train, fund, and equip various Iraq militia groups.
'We should reject the idea that its banking system needs to be protected from the consequences of its own corrupt behavior or that the Lebanese Armed Forces deeply influenced by Hezbollah can function in the best interest of all the Lebanese people,' said the former official quoted above.
One veteran foreign policy adviser close to the White House told the Free Beacon that the Trump administration is still taking advice from current officials who served in the Obama administration and have an urge to continue that administration's policies.
'President Trump has been publicly and fully backing our Saudi and Israeli allies, who are on the front lines against Hezbollah,' said the source, who would only speak on background because policy deliberations are ongoing. 'They assess that Hezbollah has full political and military control over Lebanon and they've been acting accordingly.'
'But there are parts of the Trump administration that still live in the fantasy world created by Obama, where Lebanon is up for grabs and maybe we can push out Iran if we finance these puppets over here that Iran has installed, but sanction these other puppets over here,' the source said. 'The result is we're paying to boost Iran.'
A Treasury official, speaking only on background, said it continues to implement sanctions on Hezbollah, though it is waiting for direction from the State Department about future actions.
'Hezbollah is designated under multiple sanctions authorities as are its members, operatives, and supporters,' the official said. 'While we do not comment on specific cases or potential future actions, Treasury is committed to imposing sanctions against Hezbollah, and we will continue to expose, block, and disrupt Hezbollah's finances and deny this terrorist group access to the U.S. and international financial systems.'
The administration continues to consider Lebanon's Central Bank 'as a valuable partner in the fight about Hezbollah,' according to the official.
'Treasury continues to work with the Central Bank of Lebanon and Lebanese banks to expand their capability to protect the Lebanese financial system from abuse by Hezbollah in order to maintain connections with the U.S. financial system,' the administration official said.
This stance, however, is coming under question in light of former Prime Minster Hariri's claim that Hezbollah controls every facet of the Lebanese government.
'The most important point about Hariri's resignation—and the Saudi position—is the admission that Hezbollah controls the state,' said Tony Badran, a writer and prominent authority on Lebanon who serves as a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 'There is no distinction between Hezbollah and the state.'
'This acknowledgment has direct bearing on U.S. policy in Lebanon,' Badran explained. 'It puts paid to the conceit that we can distinguish between Hezbollah and this theoretical construct called ‘the Lebanese state,' which is supposedly not only independent of Hezbollah, but perhaps even opposed to it. This is myth. '
'The premise of the support to the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] is that we are strengthening the ‘Lebanese state,' and in so doing, we are somehow undermining Hezbollah,' Badran said. 'How that is, nobody has ever come up with an actual answer.'