A new Lebanese government, dominated by the Shiite militia group Hezbollah and its allies, was announced today by Prime Minister Najib Mikati. The heavy presence of members loyal to Hezbollah may now jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. support.
Mikati, a Hezbollah-backed politician and billionaire businessman, was tapped to replace Saad Hariri in January. Hariri’s fragile U.S.-backed central government toppled earlier this year when a slew of ministers affiliated with Hezbollah—a heavily-armed Shiite militia with extensive ties to Syria and Iran—resigned while Hariri was meeting with President Obama in Washington.
Hezbollah and its Christian and Druze allies secured 18 slots within Mikati's new government, Reuters reported. As Hariri’s coalition had only 11 Hezbollah-affiliated members, this increase will allow them to move their agenda or block decisions more easily.
"This government is committed to maintaining strong, brotherly ties which bind Lebanon to all Arab countries, without exception," Mikati said at the Baabda Presidential Palace. "Let us go to work immediately according to the principles... [of] defending Lebanon's sovereignty and its independence and liberating land that remains under the occupation of the Israeli enemy."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, currently embroiled in a brutal crackdown on protesters within his own country, called Mikati to congratulate him, Reuters reported.
Hezbollah is one of 47 organizations the United States designates as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and the new government is sure to spark concern in Washington. It is unlawful for a person in the United States or subject to its jurisdiction to “knowingly provide material support or resources to a designated FTO,” according to the State Department. These resources include weapons, explosives, training, and expert advice—all of which Washington has been providing to Lebanon. The U.S. has given Lebanon $720 million in military aid since 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah squared off in a short but violent and enormously destructive war.
In recent months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged caution to lawmakers threatening to cut off aid to Lebanon. "We will review [the government's] composition, its policies, and its behavior to determine the extent of Hezbollah's political influence over it,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March. The Obama administration requested $100 million in military aid and foreign assistance to Lebanon for next year, but stipulated that the funds be closely monitored as the situation evolves.
On Monday, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., criticized the administration for keeping "the aid pipeline flowing" when Hariri's government fell.
“Now, Hezbollah and its cohorts will control the Lebanese government and likely benefit from the years of U.S. assistance, including to the Lebanese military. We cannot undo past mistakes, but we can learn from them and safeguard taxpayer dollars going forward," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "The U.S. should immediately cut off assistance to the Lebanese government as long as any violent extremist group designated by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations participates in it."
As part of the administration's review, the U.S. had stopped shipping weapons to Lebanon’s armed forces since the collapse of Hariri’s government, due to fears that weapons systems might fall into Hezbollah’s hands, the Wall Street Journal reported in April. Even so, the U.S. continued to provide training and nonlethal assistance to the country.
Much of the U.S. aid to Lebanon has come through direct military sales to Beirut, Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told National Journal in January. In the last two years alone, the United States has provided the Lebanese army with Humvees, rifles, grenade launchers, ammunition, trucks, and spare parts, Lapan said. The United States has also sent Special Forces personnel to Lebanon to train the military, a former defense official with direct knowledge of the deployments told National Journal in January.
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