General Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command reportedly visited Lebanon on Monday and met with top officials to discuss U.S. aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Votel’s visit followed a separate visit last week by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and a delegation of congressional staff members. Corker went on a tour of the LAF position in the northeastern town of Arsal, near the border with Syria.
The visits took place amidst questions over Washington’s policy of aiding the LAF. These questions, driven primarily by the LAF’s close ties with the Iranian proxy group Hezbollah, have been amplified by recent political developments in Lebanon. Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, is now the country’s president, and other figures close to Hezbollah now occupy key positions in the cabinet, including the ministry of defense.
Since his election, Aoun has continuously supported Hezbollah’s swelling non-state arsenal. He has done so unabashedly, including on recent trips to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where he declared the group’s massive arsenal was “not in contradiction with the state.” His comments prompted the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon to tweet that UN Security Council Resolution 1701 calls for the “disarmament [of] all armed groups in Lebanon.”
During Corker’s visit, Aoun asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman for continued U.S. support. His request was for Washington to enhance Lebanon’s military capabilities to help Lebanon maintain a military balance with Israel. Aoun also reportedly relayed to Corker his view that Hezbollah has “a complementary role to the Lebanese army.” Aoun’s reported comment reflects the reality that no Lebanese government can be formed, let alone function, if it does not adopt the line set by Hezbollah regarding its role and status.
Similarly, Hill staffers met with Lebanon’s new defense minister Yaacoub Sarraf, an ally of Hezbollah, who only one day later hosted the Iranian military attaché. Sarraf emphasized to the Iranian attaché the importance of “strengthening cooperation” between the Lebanese and Iranian militaries, and vowed to explore “ways to develop military-civilian cooperation between the two countries.”
The American visitors also met with LAF commander Jean Kahwagi, whose term was once again extended by a year in September. What is certain is that whoever is appointed to replace Kahwagi will be someone who meets Hezbollah’s approval and who maintains the existing synergistic relationship between the LAF and the group. That is the Lebanese reality. From the head of state to the defense minister to the commander of the LAF, the leadership structure is aligned with Hezbollah. Unfortunately, U.S. aid to the LAF now only helps consolidate this Hezbollah-dominated order.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.