President Donald Trump's decision to freeze millions of guarantees for Ukraine has recently dominated the headlines as it plays a central role in the impeachment investigation.
However, less attention has been paid to the $ 105 million continued reluctance of the Trump administration to grant Congress-sanctioned military assistance to Lebanon, with an escalating economic and political crisis, with nationwide mass protests.
The White House has failed to explain why foreign military funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has been maintained for months, despite strong support from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council – a situation comparable to Trump's Ukraine.
In the meantime, lawmakers and Congressional experts warn against freezing aid to Iran and Russia.
"It is incredibly dangerous for Lebanon"
The LAF is one of the few buffers against the influence of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed anti-Israeli Shiite Muslim militant group and political party that sees the US as a terrorist organization. A cut in funding for LAF at such a delicate time for Lebanon could lead the troubled spiral in a direction that leaves the country open to exploitation by US opponents.
Ned Price, a former national security official in the Obama administration, told insiders that the LAF "is one of the most inclusive and stabilizing elements of Lebanese society" and that "weakening Hezbollah, Iran and Russia deeper into the Lebanese Society invites ".
Price added that it was "not normal" and "not legal" for Trump to "withhold funds committed in Congress".
"It is incredibly dangerous for Lebanon and for our own institutions at home to continue this practice," Price continued, explaining that it is possible for Trump to seek to "normalize" the freezing of military aid, as it is a series of inconsistent Reasons for this suggest retention of support from Ukraine.
David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert and CEO of the Rothkopf Group, told insiders that LAF is "the primary counterweight to Hezbollah's influence," and the freezing of aid strengthens Iranian Hezbollah sponsors.
"People started to ask, what's the problem?"
In contrast to Ukraine's aid, which was finally released in September, there is no indication that Trump is denying aid to Lebanon in return for political favors.
But the Trump administration has given nebulous answers when asked about it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, said Tuesday he had "nothing to say today on the issue of financing Lebanon".
David Hale, a senior State Department official serving as the United States Ambassador to Lebanon from 2013 to 2015, announced earlier this month that the freezing of aid is going back to the end of June as evidence to investigators of the impeachment trial. Hale said it was around the time he heard of "a security issue for Ukraine for the first time".
"I think I learned from a co-worker, and the aid package for Lebanon was also done in the same way," Hale said. "So people started asking, what's the problem?"
Hale, the third-highest official in the State Department, told the House investigators he "had no explanation for why he put the Lebanese aid program on hold".
The White House Administration and Budget Office did not immediately respond to a request for insider comments.
Former US ambassador to Lebanon: "The now reviewed military aid should be released quickly"
A protester holds a Lebanese flag at a roadblock during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Beirut. (Photo by Reuters)
Since October, Lebanon has been hit by massive protests that began after the government announced a new tax on Internet calls, including through Facebook and WhatsApp (the primary form of communication in Lebanon). The Lebanese government quickly gave up the new tax and Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned not long afterwards, but this did not suppress the multi-regional demonstrations and their deeper, complex origins.
The protests are largely a charge of rampant corruption, government mismanagement, and a system dominated by sectarianism. Lebanon has a national debt of US $ 86 billion – a ratio of 152% of GDP – making it the third most indebted nation in the world.
Jeffrey Feltman, a veteran diplomat who served as US Ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, recently underlined in a statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee how important it is to provide assistance to the LAF in relation to the insecure position of the Hezbollah continues as a result of the demonstrations.
Hezbollah has attempted to discredit the demonstrations in which Sunnis, Christians, Shiites and Druse have joined forces in a common cause. In some cases, Hezbollah was involved in violence against the demonstrators.
By contrast, Feltman said LAF's response to the demonstrations was "not perfect," but added that "LAF as a whole has responded with professionalism and restraint, which is an extremely difficult situation from both a security and political point of view have to be."
Feltman described the cessation of military aid as detrimental to the credibility of the US.
"The military aid under review should be cleared soon," said Feltman. "At a time when the popularity of the LAF is trending upwards largely compared to Hezbollah's apparent decline in reputation, we can reinforce the positive momentum for us and Lebanon."
Feltman underlined that releasing the aid "would also undermine Hezbollah's, Iran's, Syria's and Russia's ongoing attempts to lure the Lebanese into orbit by undermining US reliability."
"The dumbest thing we could do if we try to weaken Hezbollah"
Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy reiterated Feltman's concerns over a series of tweets on Tuesday when he returned from a trip to Lebanon.
Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the people of Lebanon "shook their heads when Trump still refused to send mandated security assistance to Congress."
He added, "Cutting LAF funding is the dumbest thing we can do if we try to weaken Hezbollah."
Murphy said Lebanon was in an "exciting moment" when a broad group of young protesters fought against corruption and elitism, which hindered the country's progress. But when Hezbollah hits back, Murphy described the LAF as "the only force that can protect the demonstrators."
The Connecticut senator said that if the LAF is unable to sustain operations, it could lead to Hezbollah "taking power" or Russia becoming the new "backer" of the Lebanese armed forces. "Both are terrible," Murphy added.
Murphy compared the situation with Trump abandoning the Kurds in Syria and withholding aid from Ukraine, actions that were generally seen as beneficial to Russia.
Similarly, Rothkopf described the freezing of aid as "Trump's latest move to directly reward Russia for his support in the 2016 elections and possibly call for more of that support in 2020."
"Withholding assistance in Ukraine, withdrawing from Syria, attacking NATO allies and weakening the Alliance, withdrawing from the INF Treaty, defending and facilitating Russian attacks on US and Western democracies, advancing Russian reentry into the G7 All that is of material advantage to Russia, harms the US and would not have been undertaken by any other US president in modern history, "said Rothkopf.
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