US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Lebanon last March and — right there in the heart of Beirut — accused Hezbollah of terrorism. Speaker of the Lebanese parliament Nabih Berri and Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil quickly denied Pompeo’s accusations, saying Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party and part of the country’s political scene.
Baabda Palace issued a statement saying Lebanese President Michel Aoun told Pompeo that Hezbollah was a Lebanese party with a popular base that represented one of the country’s main communities.
Pompeo recently repeated his accusations while receiving Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Pompeo said Lebanon was “a country threatened by Iran and Hezbollah.”
This time, platforms loyal to and allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon did not immediately react, allowing Hariri’s silence on Washington’s accusations to reflect the position of the Lebanese government. Hariri concluded that “we cannot change the US administration’s position on sanctions against Hezbollah but we are working to spare Lebanon any consequences.”
Beirut speaks more frequently than Washington about upcoming US sanctions that will target some Lebanese who are Hezbollah’s allies and some from outside the Shia community.
Similarly, pundits from Beirut, not Washington, first suggested that Aoun, Berri and Bassil were going to be placed on the US sanctions lists.
News of the sudden reconciliation arranged by Baabda Palace between Druze leaders Walid Jumblatt and Talal Arslan suggest that its details were cooked up internally and drafted by Berri with Hezbollah’s full blessing and that pushing for that reconciliation did not really need the US Embassy’s statement after the Qabrshmoun incident June 30.
Thus, through its embassy statement, Washington notified those concerned that the United States’ behaviour was about to change and become clearer, more vibrant and perhaps less diplomatic than before. It looked like Beirut had recaptured its role as one of the major capitals on the US map for the region. It also looked like Washington’s approach to many of the files in the region requires that Lebanon take positions that are consistent with US strategic directions in the Middle East.
Thus, the position of US President Donald Trump’s administration towards Lebanon takes a 180-degree turn from his predecessor Barack Obama’s approach to the Lebanese situation.
In the past, Washington was indifferent to the risk of having Beirut fall onto the list of Arab capitals that Iran is boasting to have control over but now Washington is directly concerned with a series of files that Pompeo released in his talks with Hariri.
The United States is working to mediate an end to the land and sea border dispute between Lebanon and Israel. The United States says that an agreement on this issue would remove border tensions that have a justification for Hezbollah to retain its weapons. For Pompeo, Hezbollah’s weapons are Iran’s and they are a threat to Israel. Thus, the administration’s unabashed endeavour to protect Israel considers such a settlement a strategic priority, rather than a formal diplomatic effort.
For the United States, however, the settlement of the Lebanese-Israeli border dispute is also linked to reviving the energy deliberations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, Washington has a vested interest in cooling off the dispute that threatens prospecting in the two countries’ fields and those shared with Cyprus as well.
If Washington solves Lebanon’s problem, that would pave the way for key international players in the energy field to invest in the area, something Moscow likes and that is why it supported the US efforts from behind the scenes.
Washington is placing Lebanon in the centre of the US-Iranian conflict. The August 7 statement by the US Embassy implied that the United States would work to confirm its presence in Beirut and it would be a substantial one. Hezbollah, of course, condemned the statement as blatant US interference in Lebanon’s affairs.
However, this statement, along with the international protection it provided to Jumblatt and in addition to Washington’s assertion of its continued support for Lebanese institutions, its continued mediation to end the border dispute and to the possibility of extending US sanctions to certain Lebanese non-Shia figures allied with Hezbollah, can only be considered an official announcement by the US administration that Washington has decided to openly interfere in Lebanese affairs.
It has become obvious that building the largest US Embassy in the Middle East in Beirut places Lebanon within the vital US sphere in the region.
Speaking in Washington about the need to control the crossings and block illegal inlets on all of Lebanon’s borders aims at raising ramparts around the country to protect it from Iran’s plans in Syria and protect it from what the international plans for Syria might bring, especially having it remain in the Russian sphere.
So, considering the absence of a Russian and a Chinese position, expect new decisions by Washington targeting the Lebanese cover for what is an Iranian party in Lebanon and that will set a boundary between what is Lebanese and what is Iranian in the country. Hariri himself said the matter was being debated in the US Congress.
Mohamad Kawas is a Lebanese writer.
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