U.S. Uneasy About Hezbollah’s ‘Growing Role’ in Lebanese Govt

Published February 20th, 2019 - 08:23 GMT
Lebanon President Michel Aoun (L) with Saad al-Hariri. (AFP/ File Photo)
Lebanon President Michel Aoun (L) with Saad al-Hariri. (AFP/ File Photo)

The U.S. Tuesday warned Lebanon of Hezbollah’s “growing role” in the new Cabinet, saying this threatened the country’s stability.

The stern warning was relayed by U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

It was her first with the premier since the new government gained an overwhelming vote of confidence from Parliament last week.

The warning comes as Hariri’s 30-member national unity Cabinet, which includes three Hezbollah ministers for the first time, is slated Thursday to hold its first session since the confidence vote.

“I congratulated the prime minister just now on the successful vote of confidence in his new government and we reviewed a very broad range of areas in which the United States [is] already working with Lebanon and we reviewed what his priorities are going forward,” Richard, who headed a delegation from the U.S. Embassy, told reporters after the meeting with Hariri at the Grand Serail.

“I was also very frank with the prime minister about U.S. concern over the growing role in the Cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government, that continues to make its own national security decisions, decisions that endanger the rest of the country, and that continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflicts in at least three other countries,” she said in clear reference to Hezbollah, which is involved in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

“This state of affair does not contribute to stability and in fact it is fundamentally destabilizing,” Richard added, according to a statement released by Hariri’s media office.

Washington, which labels Hezbollah a “terrorist organization,” has toughened its sanctions on the Shiite party, as well as on its main backer, Iran, in a bid to dry up the group’s financial sources.

Despite the U.S. concern over Hezbollah’s role in the government, formed on Jan. 31 after more than eight months of squabbling by rival factions over the distribution of key ministerial portfolios, Richard said the U.S. would continue its long-standing support for Lebanon.

“I am very hopeful that Lebanon will not be derailed from the path of progress now before it. In that spirit, I brought with me today a team of senior U.S. Embassy officials, which includes our director of USAID for Lebanon, our defense attache, our refugees’ affairs adviser and our counselor for political and economic issues,” she said.Richard also touched on American financial support for Lebanon, boasting that the U.S. was the “largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon,” which she said amounted to more than $825 million over the past year.

Recalling the first Lebanese who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1850s, to the establishment by Americans of the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, she added, “Today as we invest over a billion dollars in a new embassy compound in Awkar, we want to continue our long-standing and comprehensive support for Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, the Cabinet is set to meet under President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace at 11 a.m. Thursday.

There are more than 100 items on the agenda. The most important is the possible appointment of a successor to Cabinet Secretary-General Fouad Fleifel, who reached retirement age this month, a Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star.

There are two candidates tipped to replace Fleifel: Mount Lebanon Gov. Judge Mohammad Makkawi or Judge Mahmoud Makieh.

The Cabinet will also decide on the formation of the Lebanese delegation, to be headed by Hariri, to the Euro-Mediterranean Summit scheduled to be held in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on Feb. 23-24, the source said.

However, the Cabinet session comes amid a political uproar over a “breach” of the government’s policy of dissociation from regional conflicts.

Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib Monday visited Damascus, where he discussed with Syrian officials the issue of Syrian refugees’ return to their country.

Gharib met Tuesday with Aoun and Hariri to brief them on the outcome of his talks with Hussein Makhlouf, Syria’s local administration and environment minister and the head of the Coordination Agency for the Return of Displaced Syrians.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Aoun at Baabda Palace, Gharib said Syrian officials had expressed their country’s willingness to cooperate on facilitating refugee returns. Gharib also called on Lebanese officials to stop politicizing the issue of the refugees’ presence in the country.

Speaking after meeting with Hariri, Gharib declined to clarify whether he had actually informed the premier of his visit. “Whatever is between Prime Minister Hariri and myself stays between us,” he said.

Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab, who belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc, said in a TV interview from Munich Monday that “diplomatic relations exist with Damascus and each minster is free to visit.”

The split over Syria has raised concerns over solidarity within the Cabinet barely three weeks after its formation.

The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc underlined the need for maintaining unity. “Cabinet solidarity is an essential basis for confronting challenges in the current stage,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting, chaired by Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.

The bloc called on “some political leaders” to respond to the requirements of this solidarity by avoiding “rhetoric that mars the positive atmosphere that prevailed after the Cabinet formation.”

The Strong Lebanon bloc dismissed reports about shattering Cabinet solidarity. “All the talk about breaking Cabinet solidarity is baseless. Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab’s position at the Munich conference was clear and based on international law. It considered that safe areas [in Syria] must generally be agreed with the countries [that host refugees],” MP Ibrahim Kanaan said after the bloc’s weekly meeting, chaired by FPM leader and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

He said the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon “must not be subject to political polarization.”

Earlier in the day, Hariri pledged to carry out economic and fiscal reforms recommended at the CEDRE conference held in Paris last year.

He spoke at the launch of the Unified Electronic Systems Project to classify contractors for building and infrastructure projects, in a bid to eliminate corruption in the tendering process.

“Today I pledge that this step will be applied. It is a reform step within the CEDRE conference reforms to ensure full transparency and integrity in granting all CEDRE projects and all Lebanese state projects from now on,” Hariri said.

Speaker Nabih Berri said the new government had no other choice but to succeed in its mission.

“The government is obliged to succeed and it has no other choice other than success,” Berri said during a meeting at his Ain al-Tineh residence with a delegation from the Press Federation headed by Chairman Aouni Kaaki.

Stressing the need for the government to maintain harmony within its ranks, Berri said: “A country that does not abide by the law will be a theater for corruption, chaos and bankruptcy.”

This article has been adapted from its original source.

Copyright © 2019, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

You may also like