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US has Given Lebanese Armed Forces a Pass with Hezbollah — Conditioning Aid is Necessary

American diplomats have been quietly mediating a resolution to the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border dispute, an important step to avoiding another war between these two countries. However, even if American mediators can resolve the dispute, Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon keeps alive the possibility of a devastating war.

In any future war with Israel, Hezbollah will likely rely on its growing arsenal of roughly 120,000 missiles and rockets that likely can overwhelm Israel’s air defenses. Both of us have participated in trips to the Israel-Lebanon border with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) that demonstrated the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will yield unprecedented destruction on both sides.

Hezbollah’s ability to launch missiles against Israel has significantly improved since their last war in 2006. In the initial phases of another war in Lebanon, Israel will be forced to quickly destroy these missile sites, bringing itself into direct contact with troops from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). These troops are distinct from Hezbollah, but their uncertain position and sheer proximity is a complicating factor since the United States has been providing aid to the LAF. Should fighting break out, the United States could find itself funding both sides of a major war involving our closest ally in the region.

The United States has provided the LAF with $1.7 billion since 2006, hoping substantial military aid would decrease Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. During the 2006 conflict, the LAF demonstrably distanced itself from Hezbollah. In recent years, however, multiple factors indicate that ties between Hezbollah and the LAF are growing dangerously close. In their joint fight against ISIS on Lebanon’s northern border, the parties coordinated military operations and deployments, and shared intelligence.

In southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s influence is most pronounced, the LAF has ignored its obligation to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the “disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon” other than the LAF. Despite increased LAF troop deployments to southern Lebanon in recent years, Hezbollah’s military capacity has continued growing there unchecked – including its development of offensive cross-border tunnels into Israel.

Political ties between Hezbollah and the LAF have grown alarmingly close as well. In 2018, Hezbollah won its first majority in the Lebanese parliament. Lebanese President Michel Aoun remains a loyal ally of Hezbollah and has repeatedly hailed Hezbollah’s “major” and “essential” role in Lebanon’s defense apparatus. Likewise, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has referred to the LAF as a “partner” and “pillar” of defense against Israel. Hezbollah’s growing partnership with the LAF has alarmed many Lebanese political leaders, especially moderates who seek to free their country’s future from the grip of Iranian influence.

One of us argued in a February op-ed that American policymakers should revisit their decision to fund the LAF, given its growing connections with Hezbollah. Unless the United States begins to recognize the dangerous implications of its current policy, the Trump administration will likely continue this funding without placing appropriate checks on the LAF’s actions. Maintaining the current policy endangers U.S. national security and that of our ally Israel.

Members of Congress from both parties recently introduced the Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act of 2019. By setting conditions on 20 percent – rather than all – of U.S. aid to the LAF and Lebanese government, the bill seeks to pressure Beirut to distance itself from Hezbollah without compromising or eliminating American influence and leverage.

This bill is a welcome step in the right direction. Congress should also consider imposing additional conditions on the U.S. military aid package, including demands that the LAF attempt to restrict Iranian arms channels to Hezbollah.

For too long, the United States has given the LAF a free pass to expand its dangerous and enabling relationship with Hezbollah, a terrorist group that has served as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. If the trend continues, American taxpayers can expect more of their dollars to flow to an active and willing partner of Hezbollah.

The LAF could serve as an effective ally against terror, and they undoubtedly demonstrated their military capabilities in the fight against ISIS. To protect U.S. interests in the Middle East, however, a critical reexamination of our relationship with the LAF ought to take place. Conditioning the aid that the U.S. provides to the LAF is a necessary first step in the process.

LtGen Richard Natonski, USMC (ret.), is former Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, a former observer to U.N. peacekeeping operations in the Middle East, and is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Lt Gen Thomas Trask, USAF (ret.), is former Vice Commander, United States Special Operations Command. Both are members of JINSA’s Hybrid Warfare Task Force.

Originally published in The Hill on July 5, 2019