If US cuts Lebanon Army aid, would Hezbollah's sponsor Iran step in?

Iran, a key supporter of Hezbollah, offered to underwrite the Lebanese Army after a top US congressman said Monday he had blocked $100 million in military aid. But some doubt it would substantially fill the void.

Hussein Malla/AP
In this Nov. 22, 2009 photo, Lebanese army soldiers with their American-made M-16 rifles, march during a military parade, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. The US chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Monday he has suspended US military aid to Lebanon's army amid growing concern in Congress that American-supplied weapons could threaten Israel.

After Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Monday that he had blocked $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon, Iran volunteered yesterday to make up the difference – raising concern that Tehran could increase its influence with Israel's neighbor to the north.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Tuesday that Iran's statements “are expressly the reason why we believe that continuing support to the Lebanese government and the Lebanese military is in our interest.”

With Washington’s sway in Lebanon on the decline since a high point of 2005, the Lebanese Army is seen as one of the last remaining levers available to the US to check the growing influence of local power-broker Syria and regional power Iran – both of which support Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization that Israel considers a threat.

The US government has tried to strike a balance between supporting the Lebanese Army – mainly through the provision of low-tech logistical equipment and training – while not undermining the security interests of its ally Israel and angering Congress.

“At the end of the day, US military assistance [to Lebanon] is stuck between an Israeli rock and a Hezbollah hard place,” says Aram Nerguizian, a defense and security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

US funding aimed at undercutting Hezbollah

Representative Berman moved to block the aid just before a deadly clash along the Israel-Lebanon border this week raised further concerns about the 'Hezbollah-ization' of the Lebanese Army. [Editor's note: the original version of this story incorrectly stated that Representative Berman had moved to block the aid after the border clash.]

But the US hopes that strengthening the Lebanese Army will undermine Hezbollah’s argument for retaining its armed wing as a defense against Israel, which has invaded the country three times in the past 32 years.

Hezbollah asserts that the Army, an underfunded, poorly trained, and ill-equipped force of some 55,000 troops, stands no chance against its Israeli counterpart, the most powerful military in the Middle East.

Only Hezbollah’s brand of hybrid warfare – blending irregular and conventional tactics and weaponry – can defend Lebanon against the possibility of future Israeli aggression, the party’s leaders say.

Why Iran may be bluffing

Still, even if the US military assistance program were to end, some doubt that Iran would step into the gap.

One retired Lebanese Army general said that it was in the interest of Hezbollah, and therefore Iran, not to provide too much support to the Army.

“If the Army is allowed to grow strong and capable of defending Lebanon, there would be no need for Hezbollah,” the general said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Mara Karlin, a defense analyst at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says that there is “no indication” that any other party would replace the US in substance.

“The Iranians, for example, have made assertions in the past on disbursing aid, but have not delivered,” she says. Ultimately, Ms. Karlin adds, the US military aid program should continue, but expectations should not be raised too high.

“It may be unsatisfying to members of Congress and the [Obama] administration, but a capable [Lebanese Army] serving as a presence throughout Lebanese territory is really the best one can hope for at this stage, given domestic and regional circumstances.”

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