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U.S. Arms Wielded by Terrorists: The Lebanon Crisis Awaiting Trump

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Early next year, a group of Lebanese Air Force pilots and support crew will arrive at a U.S. base in Georgia to receive training on the A-29 Super Tucano, a Brazilian-made turboprop that uses aerial firepower to support ground missions. This seems like good news: Lebanon is a plucky little democracy only about a decade removed from a 29-year Syrian occupation and still surrounded by Middle Eastern mayhem.

Responding to the Lebanese government’s pleas for aid in combating Islamic State and other Syrian terrorist groups, the U.S. has this year alone provided it with $220 million in military aid -- including 50 armored personnel carriers and 40 artillery pieces -- and facilitated its purchase of six Super Tucanos. Congress is also giving Beirut $150 million to improve border security. This puts Lebanon on the same tier of aid recipients as Jordan, which has been a stable and loyal ally to the U.S. for years.

The problem is that while Lebanon has the hallmarks of being an independent and democratic state, the reality is very different. The Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah controls a large swath of southern Lebanon, including the entire border with Israel. While constrained to just 12 seats in the 130-member parliament because of bizarre quota rules, it is the de facto leader of the minority coalition. In October, former army chief Michel Aoun was elected president. Although he is a Maronite Christian, he signed a formal alliance with Hezbollah a decade ago, and the Shiite terrorist group was instrumental in his victory. Viewed as a skirmish in the ongoing proxy war in the Middle East, Aoun’s victory was a win for Iran and a defeat for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies.

The Saudis apparently saw this coming: Six months before the election, they withdrew a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese military. While the ostensible reason was Lebanon’s failure to criticize Iran for attacks on the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran, there is little doubt that the Saudis were also concerned about whose hands those weapons would end up in.

Now, there is reason to fear the U.S. has fallen into the trap the Saudis avoided. On Wednesday, a top Israeli defense official told reporters that some of those American troop carriers were being used by Hezbollah, which has sent tens of thousands of fighters to back Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against U.S.-backed rebels. To illustrate the point, he provided a photo, taken in November, of a long line of the armored vehicles all sporting Hezbollah flags. Several such pictures made the rounds of social media over last weekend, including this capture from YouTube: 

Later on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. had done a “structural analysis” of armored personnel carriers in Hezbollah’s hands in November, and concluded that they were not part of the recent shipment to the Lebanese military. “The LAF fully complies with end use monitoring requirements, continues to have an exemplary track record with U.S. equipment and remains a valued partner in the fight against ISIS and other extremists,” Kirby said.

Yes, it’s conceivable that Hezbollah took possession of the vehicles after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. But the Israeli official pooh-poohed the idea. “We recognize these specific APCs according to some specific parameters,” he said. “It’s not an assumption. These were given to them by the USA.” 

He added that Israel believes the transfer was part of a deal with the government that allowed Hezbollah to tighten “its grip on the main national institutions in Lebanon.” 

If the Israelis are correct, it remains unclear whether the Lebanese government gave the carriers to Hezbollah or the latter took them by force. Still, that’s mostly a distinction without a difference. They ended up with a terrorist group, which is a severe violation of U.S. export controls. Federal law mandates that the Obama administration would have to bring it to the attention of Congress “promptly.” According to Lee Smith of National Review, “even if the APCs are part of a U.S. package from an earlier period, it still requires notification.”

The additional irony is that the U.S. shipments were intended not only to protect Lebanon from Islamic State, but to fulfill a 2006 United Nations resolution calling for disarming Hezbollah and returning the territory it holds to government control. Now there is reason to fear the opposite is happening. It all brings up a larger question: Is the Lebanese military now doing the terrorists’ bidding?

This isn’t the first time the question of Lebanese reliability has cropped up. Two years ago, Iran offered to replace the billions the Saudis were giving the Lebanese if Beirut would end its alliance with the kingdom. It’s unlikely that the Iranians, suffering under international sanctions, could have come up with the goods, and Lebanon stuck with the Saudis, at least for a couple more years.

So what should the U.S. do? Canceling aid would be a gamble. Aoun’s government might turn to Iran, and Hezbollah could work to destabilize the militarily weakened government and expand its territory. The nation’s Sunni Muslims and Druze, who make up a third of the population, could find themselves victims of a Maronite-Shiite alliance. And war with Israel is always just a shot away.

The Obama administration can start with the obvious: collecting intelligence to confirm whether the personnel carriers are from the latest U.S. shipment. Beyond that, the steps are anything but obvious. We just may be looking at the first foreign-policy crisis for President Donald Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net