Are Strained U.S.-Lebanon Relations Under Trump Creating an Opening for Russia?

Are Strained U.S.-Lebanon Relations Under Trump Creating an Opening for Russia?
Lebanese marine special forces soldiers march during a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence, at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, Beirut, Nov. 22, 2019 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

The Trump administration created yet another stir in Washington last fall when it mysteriously froze $105 million in military aid to Lebanon for several months. While the hold was quietly lifted on Dec. 2 after pressure from members of Congress, it ignited a debate over how the United States should engage with Lebanon amid an ongoing revolutionary protest movement that has already forced one prime minister in Beirut to resign. There are also signs that Lebanon views the U.S. as an increasingly unreliable security partner, allowing Russia to gain influence in this small but strategically important country in the Middle East.

Few details have been made public about the White House’s initial decision to hold up the aid to Lebanon’s military. Much of the U.S. national security bureaucracy supports assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which has long been viewed as an important counterweight to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia and political party that some Western and Arab countries, including the U.S., consider a terrorist organization. Washington provided more than $2 billion in military assistance to Lebanon between 2005 and 2019. Along with France, the U.S. is the primary supplier of weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The Trump administration’s decision to withhold a tranche of this aid last fall was therefore controversial, though not too surprising given Trump’s ongoing campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran and its partners, including Hezbollah. Some hawks in Washington argue that Hezbollah has too much power within Lebanon’s government and that U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces only winds up aiding Hezbollah rather than countering it. When Hezbollah fighters took control of West Beirut in a brazen show of force in 2008, the Lebanese Armed Forces failed to do more than stand idly by. Many American observers concluded from that incident and others that Lebanon was “lost” to Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.

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