Newly announced U.S. arms sales to Lebanon coincide with an Obama administration order to cut funding for an anti-Hezbollah Lebanese group, a move foreign policy insiders describe as empowering the Iranian backers of the terrorist group.
Critics are viewing the cut to anti-Hezbollah efforts as another concession by the administration to Iran—which controls and funds Hezbollah—ahead of attempts to finalize a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic ahead of a June 30 deadline.
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Newly disclosed documents reveal that the Obama administration quietly decided in April to cut funds for Hayya Bina, a leading anti-Hezbollah group in Lebanon, "due to a recent shift in Department of State priorities in Lebanon," according to a letter notifying the group of the funding cuts.
Soon after this move, the United States announced that it would deliver a slew of new weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has come under intense criticism for its close relationship with Hezbollah and its efforts to bolster the group’s activities in Syria.
The timing of these decisions by the Obama administration has prompted Middle East leaders and foreign policy insiders to accuse the administration of endorsing Hezbollah and shifting the United States’ regional priorities to be more in line with Iran’s.
The State Department, in its letter, ordered that "all activities [by Hayya Bina] intended [to] foster an independent moderate Shia voice be ceased immediately and indefinitely."
This directly affects the group’s efforts to provide an alternative to Hezbollah, which is an extremist Shiite Muslim militant group.
On Wednesday, the State Department marked the delivery of more than 200 TOW-II missiles and "dozens of launchers to the LAF," according to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
The military hardware cost more than $10 million and was jointly funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, according to the State Department.
Around $82.5 million in weapons and ammunition have been provided to the LAF since August 2014.
Additionally, the Pentagon announced this week that it is considering selling Lebanon six A-29 Super Tucano aircraft and support equipment as well as logistical support.
The sale is estimated to cost $462 million, the Pentagon said.
"The Government of Lebanon has requested a possible sale of six A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, eight PT6A-68A Turboprop engines, eight ALE-47 Countermeasure Dispensing Systems, two thousand Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems, eight AN/AAR-60(V)2 Missile Launch Detection Systems, non-SAASM Embedded Global Positioning System/Initial Navigation System (EGIs), spare and repair parts, flight testing, maintenance support, support equipment, publications and technical documentation, ferry support, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support," according to the Pentagon.
The sale "will provide Lebanon with a much needed Close Air Support (CAS) platform to meet present and future challenges posed by internal and border security threats," according to the Pentagon. "The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region."
However, regional experts disagree with this assessment. They argue that given the LAF’s close relationship with Hezbollah, the arms will support the terror group’s military efforts to bolster Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president.
The LAF is "basically protecting Hezbollah’s rear and flank on the Lebanese side of the border, which in turn allows Hezbollah to run its operations more freely across the border in Syria," said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) who first broke the news of the anti-Hezbollah funds being cut.
"They are essentially acting as an auxiliary force for Hezbollah in Lebanon," he said, adding, the LAF has "taken on the role of securing the same areas Hezbollah is trying to secure. There’s an overlap and it goes to help sustain Hezbollah’s effort in Syria."
U.S. assistance to the LAF helps Hezbollah continue its fight in Syria, Badran said.
America is "helping the Lebanese seal the border only in one direction, not both directions," Badran explained. "We’re helping Lebanon, and thus Hezbollah, against anything coming in from the Syrian side, but not to totally seal the border, which would prevent Hezbollah from continuing its war" in Syria.
"We’re facilitating this war in a way," Badran explained." That’s the context of the arms. They’re being deployed in a manner that relieves Hezbollah and assists its war effort."
All of this activity ultimately boosts Iranian interests in the region, where Hezbollah has been propping up Assad at Tehran’s behest.
The Obama administration is "appeasing [Iran] in order to get the nuclear agreement," said Michael Doran, a former senior director for the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) under George W. Bush.
"The agreement is [Obama’s] absolute top priority, but it is not the strategic goal" said Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "The goal of the talks was always détente with Iran and that’s what we’re seeing. The nuclear goal is a means to a larger end."
Badran also warned that ongoing U.S. military support to the LAF is bolstering Iran’s interests.
There is a "consistent attempt by Obama to assure the Iranians that their regional holdings and spheres of influence are recognized and respected," he said. "He will not cross them and not jeopardize them. That includes in Syria, but by definition, includes it in Lebanon."
"What we’re doing indirectly is helping Iran secure its strategic objective in Lebanon and Syria," he said.