White House Freezes Military Aid to Lebanon, Against Wishes of Congress, State Dept. and Pentagon

The indefinite hold halts a $105 million package that the State Department and Congress had approved. Analysts say the winners could be Iran, Russia, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Lebanese army soldiers facing anti-government protesters last week in Beirut.
Lebanese army soldiers facing anti-government protesters last week in Beirut.Credit...Anwar Amro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has frozen all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million that both the State Department and Congress approved in September, congressional officials said Friday.

The halt to American funding of the Lebanese Armed Forces, an important multisectarian group, comes at a critical time for Lebanon, as officials are grappling with the country’s largest street protests since its independence in 1943 and a change in leadership forced by the demonstrations. A freeze on the assistance could give Iran and Russia an opening to exert greater influence over the Lebanese military, analysts say, and perhaps even allow the Islamic State and Al Qaeda to gain greater footholds in the country.

The delivery of military aid, especially in cases that involve White House intervention, has become a delicate and divisive issue in Washington. Congressional committees are overseeing an impeachment inquiry into whether President Trump held up $391 million in military aid to Ukraine in an effort to coerce Ukrainian leaders to do political favors for him. Though the president has denied it, senior administration officials have testified that there was indeed a quid pro quo, and the top American diplomat in Ukraine said he sent a cable telling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it was “folly” to withhold the aid.

The Pentagon and State Department pressed for the aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces, congressional aides said, and officials in both departments say the military organization is an important bulwark against extremist elements and armed factions of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group that has political and military wings.

But officials on the national security staff at the White House recently asked the Office of Management and Budget to freeze all aid to the Lebanese military, two congressional officials said Friday. Officials at the State Department and Pentagon only learned of the halt in recent days. It is unclear if anyone has told the Lebanese government of the freeze.

The State Department referred questions about the freeze to the budget office, which did not have immediate comment, and the Defense Department referred questions to the White House, where officials declined to comment.

On Friday afternoon, Nathan A. Sales, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, said, when asked about the freeze, that the Lebanese military was an important counterweight to Hezbollah, though he did not address the aid freeze itself.

“We see Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” he said, “and that is why we have worked over the years, over many years, to strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces, to ensure that there is no felt need in Lebanon to rely on any purported services that Lebanon might receive from Hezbollah. That has been our policy and that remains our policy.”

Congressional aides got confirmation of the freeze on Thursday, and Reuters reported it. Congressional officials were surprised, since State Department officials notified Congress on Sept. 5 that the United States was moving ahead with a $105 million package of aid to the Lebanese military. The package is known as foreign military financing, which is major aid that is usually managed by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, part of the Defense Department.

Mr. Trump has broadly criticized how the United States distributes foreign aid, and some conservative Middle East policy analysts have argued that aid to the Lebanese military could end up helping Hezbollah.

One congressional official said it was troubling that the White House had ordered the action against the recommendations of both the State and Defense Departments. The official said that the United States closely monitors how the aid is used, and that any fear that the money could fall into the hands of Hezbollah is a myth.

In December, Jim Mattis, who was defense secretary at the time, described the Lebanese Army Forces as “legitimate” and a partner of the American military. “They are helping to keep the situation stable right now,” he said, speaking of a flare-up in tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, two longtime enemies.

Other top American officials have given similar assessments. David Schenker, the State Department’s new assistant secretary of near eastern affairs, argued in an August 2017 paper that, although the Lebanese military had been “colluding” with Hezbollah, it had helped stabilize the country and repel militant Sunni influence. Earlier that year, General Joseph L. Votel, then the leader of United States Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Lebanese army had “demonstrated tremendous return on investment in recent years,” and that Washington should consider increasing its support.

Analysts said Friday that the United States was acting against its own goals by withdrawing the aid, especially at a time when Lebanese protesters are also questioning why the United States has stood by Lebanon’s government, which they oppose. Severing ties with the Lebanese army could create an opening for other sources of money, notably Iran or Russia, whose power in neighboring Syria has increased since Mr. Trump withdrew American troops last month from the Syria-Turkey border region.

“We still have U.S. interests in the region, and losing our toehold there — no matter how slim it may be now — will prevent us, in the future, from steering things in a better way for us and for Lebanon,” said David Daoud, a Hezbollah analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran, which advocates tougher United States policies on Iran.

“Does that mean we should be O.K. with what the L.A.F. is doing now?” he added. “Absolutely not. There should be more accountability, there should be a little bit more tough love, but to cut off the aid would be, I think, counterproductive for our interests.”

In recent years, though, some prominent conservatives in Washington — particularly those who view contesting Iranian influence as a central goal — have called for decreasing military aid to Lebanon’s army. In 2017, Elliott Abrams, a Middle East policy official under President George W. Bush, testified before the House of Representatives that Lebanon’s army “is increasingly intertwined with Hezbollah.”

“If we have tried to make the L.A.F. a counterbalance to Hezbollah, we have failed,” said Mr. Abrams, who has since become Mr. Trump’s special representative for Venezuela. “Perhaps things would be even worse today without our aid and our efforts, but that is a proposition that should be examined and tested.”

In June, several Republicans in Congress, led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, introduced a measure called the Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act, which would withhold 20 percent of American military assistance to the country unless the president can certify that the Lebanese military is taking “necessary steps to end Hezbollah and Iran’s influence over the L.A.F.,” as Mr. Cruz put it in a June statement.

Top Israeli officials share that alarm about the influence, but are also anxious that aid cuts to a key Lebanese government institution could exacerbate Lebanon’s growing political instability. Israel has, however, asked the United States and European nations to condition aid to Lebanon on Hezbollah’s missile factory shutdown.

The Lebanese Armed Forces is one of the few institutions in the country that enjoys broad popularity across all religious and political divides, in part because it employs people from all of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious groups — including Shiite Muslims, who make up Hezbollah’s base.

Many Lebanese have relatives or friends in the army. Despite sporadic scuffles between security forces and protesters during Lebanon’s ongoing anti-government demonstrations, support for the army has not wavered. Protesters have chanted pro-army slogans, waved the army’s flag alongside the Lebanese flag and even handed roses to soldiers at roadblocks.

The United States provided more than $2.29 billion in military assistance to Lebanon between 2005 and 2019. The American ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth H. Richard, is a strong supporter of security aid to the army, viewing it as one way the United States can create good will. As recently as August, she congratulated the Lebanese army while viewing a military exercise, saying, “We are firm believers in this army and I hope every Lebanese believes in this army, as well.”

Like the Lebanese government and the Lebanese themselves, the army appears to treat Hezbollah, which has representation in parliament and in ministries, as a fact of life. It occasionally coordinates with Hezbollah, as it did in August, when Hezbollah claimed it had shot down two Israeli drones south of Beirut. After doing a preliminary investigation, Hezbollah turned the information over to the army.

Edward Wong and Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Vivian Yee from Beirut. Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.