BEIRUT—Ever since the Marines first landed on Beirut’s beaches in 1958, the American military has intervened periodically one way or another in the conflicts of this troubled Mediterranean state wedged between Syria and Israel.
Never before, however, has the U.S. come so close to joining forces, even tacitly, with such an infamous U.S.-designated terrorist entity—the one Washington blames for the deadliest attack on Marine personnel since World War II, the October 1983 bombing of a battalion landing team barracks south of Beirut that killed 241 American servicepeople.
De facto cooperation with Hezbollah (the Party of God), at one remove, is nevertheless what’s happening today.
The Pentagon has confirmed U.S. Special Operations Forces are providing assistance to the regular Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as the latter battle jihadists in the hardscrabble Syrian border zone—although no Americans are directly participating in fighting. But those same battles are being waged in coordination with both the Party of God and the Syrian regime, according to Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The situation is, to say the least, an uncomfortable one for the Pentagon. Spokesman Eric Pahon downplayed its significance to The Daily Beast, saying special operations forces had in fact been present in Lebanon since 2011, training, advising, and assisting the LAF, which has received $1.5 billion in American military assistance since 2006. A key purpose of that assistance is supposed to be counteracting the power and influence of Hezbollah.
“If we learned of credible reports of coordinated integration between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah,” Pahon told us, “that would prompt serious inquiry and outreach to convey our concern.”
Evidently the Pentagon did not catch Nasrallah’s latest televised address, last Friday, in which he spoke openly of coordination between his fighters and the LAF in the most recent phase of the border battle, and laid out in detail how the two would divide up roles, along with Bashar al Assad’s forces, in a coming campaign against the self-professed Islamic State.
Nasrallah, indeed, looked conspicuously cheerful on the occasion, and not just because he’s succeeded in co-opting the Great Satan into fighting a mutual enemy. Among the results of the now-concluded first round of the border fight was the release of five Hezbollah prisoners held by the opposing militants. Thus the operation was trumpeted as a heroic success in the Lebanese media, even in outlets not normally enamored of Hezbollah.
And in the meantime… Nasrallah’s erstwhile foe, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has just concluded a trip to Washington where he notably did not press President Donald Trump to in any way disrupt Hezbollah’s agenda—even if Trump managed, in his gaffe du jour, to claim mistakenly that the Lebanese army was fighting against Hezbollah, which in reality it was assisting.
Hariri has every reason to believe, as prosecutors in The Hague do, that Nasrallah’s men were behind the massive suicide bomb that killed his father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and 21 others on Valentine’s Day 2005.
But when Hariri fils was in Washington last month, at the top of his agenda was the continuation of $80 million a year in aid to the Lebanese military, even defenders of which aid admit works in at least the short term interests of Hezbollah. Hariri also wanted to limit as much as possible the economic fallout for Lebanon from new sanctions on Hezbollah proposed by Congress in July.
There is something quite historic about the way things have come together for Hezbollah in this notoriously sectarian state: already the master of Lebanon’s Shiites, Hezbollah has a loyal friend in the (Christian) president, and now enjoys the acquiescence of the (Sunni) prime minister, who spoke in a recent Politico interview of reaching an “understanding” with his father’s accused murderers.
For the first time in 35 years of existence, Hezbollah no longer faces any powerful opposition inside Lebanon.
It’s all looking up for the Party of God, then, in sharp contrast to the situation just five years ago when it seemed the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world might sweep away Hezbollah’s vital partner in Damascus and usher in a democratic Syrian government with a foreign policy independent of Tehran, possibly even aligned with the West. How long ago that now seems.
Hezbollah, of course, quickly intervened to forestall precisely that outcome by force, killing Assad’s opponents first in nearby border towns, then steadily expanding to all four corners of Syria; being, in Nasrallah’s famous words, “wherever we have to be.”
Capitalizing on—some would say facilitating—the rise of ISIS, whose exploits would hold the world in horror, Hezbollah rebranded itself as a counterterrorist crack force (so long as the terrorists weren’t Shiites). That ploy found a sympathetic audience among supporters at home and, while it’s still rarely admitted out loud, some key players in the international community, arguably including the 44th president of the United States.
Obama himself conceded his Iran Deal would work at least partly to the advantage of Hezbollah, which need not be such a bad thing, Secretary of State John Kerry opined, since Hezbollah “is not plotting against us.”
So much for the history.
The Department of Justice now says emphatically that Hezbollah is plotting against “us” after all, and announced the arrest of two of its alleged operatives in New York and Michigan on June 1.
One of the accused, 32-year-old Ali Kourani, was said to have surveilled targets including U.S. military bases and law enforcement facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn, while the second, 37-year-old Samer El Debek, was described as a bomb-making specialist tasked with sizing up the U.S. embassy in Panama, as well as the Panama Canal itself. Both had purportedly received extensive military training at Hezbollah’s hands in Lebanon.
In spite of this, the Trump administration, consumed as it has been in its domestic soap opera of Mooches and Muellers and Millers—not to mention the small matter of possible nuclear war with Pyongyang—seems to have little in the way of a plan to impede Hezbollah’s ability to carry out attacks should it choose to move from surveillance to action, much less roll back its influence in the Arab world.
Standing alongside Hariri at a Rose Garden press conference on July 25, Trump appeared to confirm U.S. aid to the LAF would continue, saying, “What the Lebanese Armed Forces have accomplished in recent years is very impressive… The United States military has been proud to help [them] and will continue to do so.”
As if to underscore the point made by critics of the policy, the following week Lebanon’s interior minister told an interviewer the army was operating in “coordination” with Assad’s army, which is subject to U.S. sanctions (instated under Obama) for its habit of massacring civilians with chemical weapons.
Asked at the same press conference more than two weeks ago about Congress’s proposed new Hezbollah sanctions, Trump said he would make his views “very clear over the next 24 hours.” He has not commented on them since.
Is this, then, the new normal? A world in which Hezbollah is not only here to stay, but free to thrive with minimal opposition, whether internal or external? More to the point, is President Trump, who has set such great store by undoing Obama’s legacy—and who explicitly called out Hezbollah as “a menace to the Lebanese state, the Lebanese people, and the entire region”—in fact content to essentially continue his predecessor’s course, with a slight tweak here and modest screw-turn there?
The Daily Beast reported last Thursday that Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was exploring “new ways to make life difficult for Iran and its proxies in places like Yemen and Lebanon”—the latter a clear reference to Hezbollah. But an email sent by this reporter to the NSC’s senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Col. Joel Rayburn, seeking clarity on these deliberations, received no reply.
Few analysts expect a radical change of direction from the president’s team any time soon.
“[The] best I can tell from persons in congress and the White House [is] the Executive Branch does not have anything bold or new in mind,” Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Daily Beast.
“They do have a position on the issue of Hezbollah and Iran, and it’s obviously more belligerent than Obama’s was, and friendlier to the Saudis, but… there is no appetite for proxy stuff or complex policies, because the truth is Trump wants to finish with ISIS and get out, as does [Defense Secretary James] Mattis, as does CENTCOM. No one who counts wants to take action, except for a few lonely souls on the NSC who, having lost Derek Harvey, do not have a vocal champion anymore.”
Others agree Trump is temperamentally more exercised about Hezbollah than his predecessor, but say he has been left with limited options to act due to the latter’s seismic rapprochement with Tehran.
“The current Lebanon policy, which was inherited from Obama, is a pro-Iran policy,” says Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who argues Obama’s prioritization of fighting ISIS “even where ISIS is marginal,” as in Lebanon, had the effect of “empower[ing] Hezbollah and the institutions of the state it dominates,” above all the Lebanese army.
While “there are signs the Trump administration might eventually change course, such as its proposals to cut security assistance to Lebanon,” Badran told The Daily Beast “those are being bitterly opposed by Beirut and its allies in Washington.”
The one avenue “where you might see some dynamism,” according to Itani, is Congress. “They are always tough on Hezbollah and the sanctions you’re hearing about are the real deal. There is a healthy lobby pushing for them. Lebanon would obviously be hit hard, and Hezbollah will not like it in the least. It’s not enough to change the strategic equation, but it’s more than an annoyance.”
Not quite fire and fury, then. Not even degrade and destroy. Apparently for Hassan Nasrallah and his fellow “mujahideen,” the worst case scenario on the horizon is a foul mood.
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey