Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with President Barack Obama today for talks that were expected to focus on recent tensions between US ally Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite organization, Hezbollah.
Supporting Lebanon was a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, particularly following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father, when the tiny Mediterranean country broke briefly from neighboring Syria’s tight grip.
President Obama's administration has been focused on drawing Syria out of Iran's orbit and lessening its support for Hezbollah. But recent US and Israeli allegations that Syria has been transferring Scud rockets to Hezbollah's control have brought Lebanon back toward the center of Washington's radar screen.
Scud allegations raise tensions
Scuds have a range of more than 400 miles, bringing all of Israel within range from Hezbollah’s bases in the Bekaa Valley. US officials who asked not be named say it is unclear whether the rockets have crossed into Lebanon or whether they are still inside Syria.
The speculation over the Scuds has aggravated tensions with Israel. Many Lebanese and Israelis fear that another war could be brewing. This week Israel launched military exercises that made Israelis jittery and drew fresh vows from Hezbollah fighters that they stand ready to fight.
While Israel has invaded Lebanon before, Hezbollah's leaders say that the group is stronger than ever and thus a fresh conflict would be of sufficient scale and intensity to change the geopolitical balance in the region.
"That kind of war would change every parameter in the Middle East," Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said recently.
Why Hariri is weak on arms smuggling
Mr. Hariri heads a coalition government that includes a member of the powerful Hezbollah organization. Although US and other Western officials have pressured Hariri to take greater steps to prevent the smuggling of arms into Lebanon, he cannot afford to trigger a fresh crisis with Hezbollah.
Top Lebanese officials privately grumble that given Lebanon’s delicate balance of power and the domestic sensitivities over Hezbollah’s arsenal, international pressure to halt weapons smuggling should be directed at Syria and Iran, both of which support Hezbollah.
In a sign of frustration, Hariri initially denied that Scuds had been smuggled into Lebanon, likening the claim to the unfounded assertions that former Iraqi president possessed weapons of mass destruction. Lately, he's been silent on the issue.
Hariri will be looking for Obama's support in calming tensions with Israel. Lebanon has experienced a tourist boom in the past two years which could be threatened by heightened tension with Israel.
$530 million in US security assistance since 2005
Other topics of discussion between Hariri and Obama will probably include the US security assistance program to Lebanon, which has exceeded $530 million since 2005, and faltering attempts to revive Middle East peacemaking.
Hariri will also meet with Vice President Joe Biden and top State Department officials before heading to New York to address the United Nations Security Council. Lebanon chairs the Security Council this month.