A senior U.S. official disclosed this week that American personnel have been stationed in the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF, a contested fighting force that is closely aligned with the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, according to testimony this week that has caused alarm in Congress and with regional experts.
David Satterfield, an acting assistant secretary in the State Department's bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, informed Congress on Wednesday that the United States will continue to fund and arm the LAF despite mounting concerns it is being controlled by Hezbollah, which controls large swaths of Lebanese territory and its fighting forces.
Satterfield disclosed to the surprise of many on Capitol Hill that the United States has "personnel working closely with and in the Lebanese Armed Forces," according to a transcript of his remarks.
The disclosure has raised alarms among congressional officials and regional experts due to the LAF's close relationship with Hezbollah, which has been empowered by ongoing American arms sales to the fighting force.
While the State Department declined to expand or comment on Satterfield's remarks, an official emphasized to the Washington Free Beacon that the administration views the LAF as a key partner in the fight against ISIS in the region.
Satterfield stated in his testimony that the close working relationship between the United States and LAF has provided unparalleled insight into the fighting force's activities.
The close relationship "gives us an insight and a view into how those forces function that we have never had in the past and I can say here on the record we do not believe that the Lebanese Armed Forces are anything other than a legitimate institution of the Lebanese state," Satterfield said. "And I would note that in strengthening that legitimate institution you effectively counter the illegitimate security structures, malicious, principally Hezbollah, which pose a challenge to the state and its authority."
Congressional insiders and regional experts are not buying this explanation, telling the Free Beacon that ongoing U.S. aid to the LAF has done nothing but empower Hezbollah's grip on the country and surrounding areas.
"It's becoming clear the Trump administration will say just about anything to keep funds flowing to Hezbollah's allies in the Lebanese army," said one senior congressional aide familiar with the situation. "They can't even keep their stories straight any more. They say we have personnel in the army, then they say no we don't. They say the army is fighting Hezbollah, then they say no the army's just fighting ISIS. This is all out of the Obama playbook that empowered Iran across the Middle East. The question is why Trump's staffers are so committed to it."
The Trump administration contends the LAF is key to the fight against ISIS and that safeguards are in place to ensure no U.S. military arms benefits Hezbollah fighters in and out of the LAF.
"The LAF is a valued partner in the fight against ISIS, and we remain committed to strengthening the LAF with the training and equipment it needs to protect Lebanon and preserve its stability," a State Department official told the Free Beacon in response to questions about Satterfield's comments. "The United States has provided over $1.5 billion in security assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) since 2006."
The United States works closely with the LAF to ensure that Hezbollah and other terror groups are not able to take advantage of U.S. arms sales.
"The LAF have an exemplary track record with U.S.-provided equipment," the official said. "We also monitor end-use of defense articles to mitigate the risk that Hizballah or other terrorist organizations could benefit from U.S. assistance."
Regional experts who spoke to the Free Beacon cast doubt on the State Department's claims, maintaining there is virtually no difference between the LAF and Hezbollah.
Upon his recent resignation as the country's leader, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri fled the country and disclosed that Hezbollah controls the entirety of Lebanon, including the LAF.
Tony Badran, a veteran Lebanon analyst and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the LAF has not helped the U.S. fight against ISIS in any substantial matter and that Hezbollah has in fact been the main beneficiary of continued U.S. arms sales and aid.
"The notion that the LAF is a partner in the fight against ISIS is a canard," Badran said. "There is no ISIS stronghold in Lebanon, and whatever small pocket there was on the border with Syria was evacuated last summer through a negotiated deal following a brief skirmish, which, incidentally, the LAF conducted in full coordination with Hezbollah on the ground."
"The purpose of U.S. assistance to Lebanon, which began years before ISIS even existed, is supposed to be to disrupt Hezbollah's illegal armament," he said. "Not only has the LAF never taken any such step, it has, rather, facilitated Hezbollah's operations—something, by the way, which is enshrined in its very doctrine, which renders it an auxiliary force to Hezbollah."
The U.S. government also has failed to ensure that Hezbollah does not benefit from U.S. aid to the LAF, Badran argued.
"The talking point about end-use risks is also a canard," he said. "Leaving aside the problem of projecting the LAF's past record with U.S. materiel onto the future, the issue is that there are many other ways for the LAF to work hand in glove with Hezbollah, using U.S.-supplied weapons."
"Case in point, the aforementioned episode last summer on the Syrian border, where the LAF used US-supplied artillery to provide cover for Hezbollah troops on the ground," Badran noted. "Beyond that, the LAF has used the weapons, as well as the prestige, we've supplied to act as a rearguard force protecting Hezbollah's flank as it slaughtered Syrians across the border, and secured its logistical routes as it moved heavy equipment and personnel in and out of Syria under the watch of the LAF, which is deployed along the border."
"In other words," Badran said, "our assistance to the LAF, which was intended to disrupt Hezbollah's logistics, is now, in fact, in its service."