Several months after putting a hold on military aid to Lebanon, the U.S. has lifted its block.
On Monday, three sources told the Associated Press that the U.S. has unfrozen over $100 million in military assistance for the Lebanese military. According to the sources, the funds were unblocked before the American holiday Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in the last week of November. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration informed the U.S. Congress of the decision on Monday.
The sources – two Congressional staffers and one from the administration – spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity.
In September, the military aid to Lebanon was temporarily withheld at the Office of Management and Budget, even though it had the support of the Congress as well as several key agencies in the executive branch, including the State and Defense Departments.
The reason for the delay has not been officially specified.
Earlier this year, the U.S. also placed a hold on military assistance to Ukraine. Currently, the circumstances of this action are under investigation in the U.S. Congress as part of impeachment inquiries. The inquiries allege the Trump administration had sought a “favor” from Ukraine as a prerequisite to unblocking aid. However, the AP reported that “unlike Ukraine, there has been no suggestion that President Donald Trump is seeking ‘a favor’ from Lebanon in exchange for the aid, according to officials familiar with the matter.”
In mid-November, David Schenker, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, told journalists the aid was going through review. He suggested that the subject of aid to Lebanon had come up in dialogue with the U.S. ally Israel. Israel is suspicious of the influence Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant-political party supported by Iran, has over security forces in Lebanon.
Despite Israel’s reservations, Schenker stated that the Trump administration is supportive of the Lebanese military, saying, “We have confidence in the Lebanese army, and we think they are important partners in the fight against Sunni jihadists. We listen to our ally Israel, and we will take their request under consideration.”
Hezbollah, which formed in the 1980s amid the Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, has solidified its place in Lebanese politics and established a military structure parallel to the Lebanese military. In some circumstances, the militant wing of the group has carried out operations on Lebanese soil independent of the military – such as in efforts to oust Syrian jihadist groups from eastern Lebanon in 2017. Soon after that operation, the Army launched its own effort that, with U.S. backing, was able to restore Lebanese control over territory bordering Syria.
Israel and some of Lebanon’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council have warned about Hezbollah’s growing influence over the Lebanese military. Several years ago, Saudi Arabia had initiated a $4 billion plan to procure weapons and provide other support to the Lebanese Army, only to later pull the aid over a spat with Lebanon regarding its stance on a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The AP noted that some lawmakers in the U.S. agree with this view. However, the Department of State and the Department of Defense reject it, instead calling the military in Lebanon “the only independent Lebanese institution capable of resisting Hezbollah.”