At the conclusion of President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and the Saudis issued a joint statement outlining shared positions. The last article in their statement addressed Lebanon and stressed “the importance of supporting the Lebanese state,” specifically in pursuit of “enforcing its sovereignty on all of its territory, disarm terrorist organizations such as Hizballah, and bring all weapons under the legitimate supervision of the Lebanese army.”
Unfortunately, the goals of strengthening the Lebanese state and disarming Hezbollah are at odds with each other. Hezbollah has completed its takeover of the Lebanese state, including and especially its political institutions and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), along with other security agencies. Strengthening the Lebanese state today means strengthening Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon ensures that counting on the “Lebanese state” to disarm Hezbollah is a non-starter. The function of the Lebanese government is to defend Hezbollah, and to align its policies with the preferences of the group and of its patrons in Tehran.
Accordingly, Beirut rejected both the U.S.-Saudi declaration and the final statement of the Arab Islamic American Summit (“Riyadh Summit” for short), which separately condemned Iran’s regional subversion and its support for terrorism. Lebanon’s Hezbollah-allied President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who attended the summit, said that the final communique was formulated after leaders had left, implying that Lebanon would have objected to it.
Aoun also rejected the U.S.-Saudi statement regarding Hezbollah’s disarmament, noting that the question of the group’s arms ought to be solved through an internal agreement over a “defensive strategy” for Lebanon (which would lay out the role of Hezbollah’s arms, not its disarmament). Instead, Aoun implicitly attacked the Saudis for supporting terrorism. Even Hezbollah’s domestic opponents echoed Aoun’s position. Prime Minister Saad Hariri also said that the Riyadh Summit communique was “not binding for Lebanon.” An MP from Hariri’s bloc had already set the tone before the summit, stating that Hezbollah represents an important segment of the Lebanese people and is part of the government, and “we don’t accept that it be labeled a terrorist party.”
This official Lebanese position is the rule, not an exception. In two back-to-back extraordinary meetings of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League in January of last year, Lebanon, alone among the Arab states, refused to sign on to resolutions condemning the attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran. A couple months later, Lebanon’s interior minister, a Hariri ally, refused to endorse a statement by Arab interior ministers labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization right after Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had done so. When the Arab League followed the GCC’s lead and designated Hezbollah, only Lebanon, along with Iraq, abstained.
These positions have already led the Saudis to recognize that Lebanon had become an Iranian satrapy, and so Riyadh has withdrawn its political and military support for Beirut: It has yet to return its ambassador and has cut off funding to the LAF. The U.S. should adopt a similar cut-off.
The Obama administration publicly recognized Iran’s regional “equities” and, consequently, never regarded negatively Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon and its synergetic relationship with the LAF. But the policy of supporting the Lebanese state in the hope of weakening Hezbollah dates back to the Bush administration. Whatever one thought of that policy at the time, the reality of Lebanon and the region has since shifted dramatically. Today, that paradigm is as obsolete as it is counterproductive.
In the best case, continued support for the “Lebanese state” to disarm Hezbollah will merely fail. More likely, it will counterproductively bolster Hezbollah, which controls the institutions the U.S. is funding.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay