Did Tillerson Just Go Off Script About Hezbollah?

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Rex Tillerson
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Did U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just go off script during his Middle East tour when he said the U.S. has to recognize that Hezbollah is “part of the political process in Lebanon?”

Or did he just call out the elephant in the room of American foreign policy vis-a-vis Lebanon, signaling a change to come?

First a little background: Hezbollah is through and through a terror group, designated as such by the U.S. government in 1997. Moreover, it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran, which controls the group’s purse strings to the tune of about $700 million a year.

There is no distinction (in terms of intent) between its military and political “wings,” a fact the U.S. acknowledges by its designation of the whole of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Only in Europe do they make that distinction.

With the exception of the UK and The Netherlands, Europe recognizes only Hezbollah’s military wing as a terror group (a convenient distinction to avoid stirring up a hornet’s nest of retaliatory terror and maintain lucrative financial dealings with Lebanon and Iran).

Yet, far from being merely “part of the political process,” as Tillerson demurred, Hezbollah essentially controls Lebanon — first and foremost through its military, as acknowledged by Lebanese President Michel Aoun (a Hezbollah lackey), who called the group “an essential part of Lebanon’s defense.”

Just one example of how Hezbollah makes itself “essential” to the defense of Lebanon: Last summer, when Lebanon decided to send its army to clear out Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) militants from the country, Hezbollah stepped in, pre-empting their offensive and doing the job themselves.

This follows Hezbollah’s doctrine of domination: “The army, the people and the resistance,” according to Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, as quoted in the Middle East Eye.

Hezbollah’s taking the lead role of being the defender of the country “reflects the reality that it sets the agenda as well as operational direction,” says Badran.

“The army has patrolled roads, and secured their [Hezbollah] logistical and communication routes, etc.,” Badran added. “So, when Hezbollah did its military parade in Qusayr last year, how do you think they brought in all that hardware across the border? The army was there. It waves them across.”

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence that Hezbollah’s controls not only Lebanon’s government but also its military, the U.S. continues to pour millions of dollars into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) every year.

In 2017 alone, among other equipment, the U.S. gave the LAF 50 armored Humvees with automatic grenade launchers, Hellfire missiles and 1,000 machine guns.

There are those that would argue the LAF is the only foil to Hezbollah available to the West has and that strengthening the LAF will ultimately give it the means to kick Hezbollah out of Lebanon.

“That is wishful thinking,” said Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of a book on Hezbollah titled, A Privilege to Die, as quoted in Middle East Eye. “The dominant leaders in the LAF would not oppose Hezbollah, as they are seen as essential in the defense against Israel.”

President Donald Trump recently called out Pakistan for its terror financing and subsequently put a halt to millions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid slated for the country.

If Tillerson’s statements about Hezbollah signal that his boss is going to have a “Pakistan moment” regarding Lebanon, then his remarks may have been the forerunner to soften the blow.

But short of pulling the plug on the U.S.’ dangerous support of the Lebanese military, acknowledging Hezbollah’s political assets only gives the terror group more legitimacy and power.

This is certainly something the world does not need.



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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org