On Wednesday, the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee held a hearing on U.S. policy in Lebanon. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the subcommittee, opened the hearing with the following statement:
Since our subcommittee’s last hearing on Lebanon, much has changed in our bilateral relationship. Both Lebanon and the United States have new presidents, the picture in neighboring Syria continues to look dire, and ISIS appears to be on its last legs – yet again. But despite these changes, and, in some cases, because of them, many of the same challenges and concerns about Lebanon and U.S. policy remain. As one of my Israeli friends put it, Lebanon is essentially “a constitution without a state.”
Weak political institutions, combined with the influx of refugees from Syria, have strained the Lebanese government to the point where it struggles to provide even the most basic of services. Most Syrian refugees, numbering well over 1.5 million now, are living in sub-standard shelters or apartments, struggling to find work, facing increasing hostility from native Lebanese. Refugees now make up about one third of the country’s population – wow. Economic challenges, including the Syrian war’s damage to Lebanon’s tourism, real estate, and construction industries, means that Lebanon’s unemployment issues are set to continue and get even worse in the future. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror group that controls many aspects of Lebanese government and society, is only getting stronger as its fighters come back from Syria armed with new skills, with new weapons, and with its ally Assad sadly still in power.
This is not only a threat to the future and stability of Lebanon, but it presents one of the greatest threats to our ally, the democratic Jewish State of Israel and to our own national security interests as well. Especially when you consider that Lebanon’s new president, Michel Aoun, is a longtime ally of Hezbollah, at one point stating Hezbollah is necessary so that it can battle Israel.
Now, I am aware that there are those that argue that supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is essential to developing strong security institutions that could serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah. While I understand the need for an LAF that can protect Lebanon’s borders, its territorial integrity, and, at least in theory, mitigate Hezbollah’s influence, reports of LAF and Hezbollah coordination and LAF and Hezbollah cooperation have long given me concern over the U.S. commitment to supporting the LAF. In fact, just this past August, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces launched simultaneous operations against ISIS along the Lebanese-Syrian border with numerous reports of coordination between the two groups.
The message we should be delivering to Lebanon is: if they want U.S. military assistance, the LAF can either cut off ties with Hezbollah completely and unequivocally, or they have to go at it alone. We must not allow any U.S. equipment to fall in the hands of Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization.
But we provide more than just military assistance and USAID has its work cut out for itself as it works to respond to Lebanon’s need for essentials like clean water, food, and economic opportunities, especially when considering the influx of refugees. I’m interested in hearing what kind of work State and USAID are doing to prepare for Lebanon’s legislative elections next year, with the stakes higher than ever as Hezbollah and Iran try to cement their control. I’m also interested in hearing any updates on the current status of United States permanent resident and Lebanese citizen, Nizar Zakka.
By now we should all be familiar with Nizar’s story – invited by the Iranians to participate in a conference, then detained, then arrested, tried and convicted of trumped up espionage charges all in an effort by Tehran to exact political and financial concessions. We heard from his youngest son Omar, just a few months ago. He sat right here, in this room in front of us, and describe what he and his family have gone through with the uncertainty of his father’s future, and more importantly, his father’s health – which is failing. So I hope to hear some positive updates on what State is doing and what Lebanon is doing to bring Nizar home.
As we talk about the best way to confront Lebanon’s numerous challenges, be they political, economic, security, or humanitarian, I worry that our short-term objectives in Lebanon are getting lost in what needs to be a broader strategy in the Middle East. With Assad consolidating power in Damascus, Tehran continuing to reap the benefits of the JCPOA, and Hezbollah gaining even more power in Beirut, Iran’s infamous land bridge to Lebanon appears all but complete. Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel have a great bill, the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act, which would up the sanctions pressure on the terrorist group and I am hopeful that it gets signed into law soon.
I am looking forward to hearing from our witnesses on exactly how U.S. policy has changed over the past year, how the administration’s budget request for Lebanon corresponds to our U.S. national security interests, and how it all fits into our strategy for the region as a whole. U.S. policy in Lebanon must be calibrated to scale back Hezbollah and Iran’s influence, while spurring much-needed security, stability and prosperity for the country, but I have serious concerns about whether we are having the impact that we all desire.
First elected to Congress in a special election in 1989, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first woman to ever chair the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. Currently the longest serving member of the Florida delegation, Ros-Lehtinen has announced that she will not run for reelection in 2018.
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