As much of the world focused its attention on the recent flare up in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Biden administration quietly announced a $15 million increase in the annual aid package for the Lebanese army.
Such steps could potentially serve to maintain a minimal level of security in Lebanon and prevent further U.S. entrenchment in the Middle East. At the same time increasing aid to the Lebanese army could serve to preserve a level of American influence in Lebanon as rival countries attempt to step up their role.
However, statements made by U.S. officials against the Lebanese Hezbollah pose the question as to whether this increased aid has more to do with an anti-Hezbollah agenda.
Washington’s security concerns in Lebanon
Interestingly the announcement of increased aid to the Lebanese army coincided with a letter from House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Gregory Meeks and a handful of Democratic lawmakers to Secretary of State Antony Blinken stating that supporting Lebanon has now become a security imperative, even going as far as to warn that further deterioration in the country had the potential to pose a threat to U.S. national security.
It also warned of the degradation of the Lebanese army as a result of the economic crisis that has engulfed the country, and thereby emphasized the need to increase assistance to the army.
The Democratic lawmakers argued that such a step was necessary to prevent “non state armed groups like Hezbollah and other militias” from benefitting from the situation.
It is the “other militias” that could come to pose a real national security threat of the kind alluded to by the Democratic lawmakers.
With an unprecedented economic crisis that has seen the local currency plummet to record low levels and the absence of a fully functional government for nearly 10 months — not to mention COVID-19 and the port blast — Lebanon is the perfect breeding ground for “other militias,” for example Wahhabi inspired terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaida that thrive in such environments.
It is worth noting that while Lebanon has not been a victim of Wahhabi-inspired attacks at the scale seen in countries like Syria and Iraq, it is by no means a stranger to this form of terror.
The Lebanese army itself fought a months-long battle against the al-Qaida inspired Fateh Al-Islam group in 2007 with both sides suffering heavy casualties before the terrorists were finally defeated.
Al-Qaida also established a branch for itself in Lebanon under the name ‘Abdullah Azzam Brigades” in 2009.
This group claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013, and for an attack on the Iranian Cultural Centre in Beirut in February 2014.
The arrest of 18 ISIS members in a Lebanese border town with Syria by the Lebanese army in February earlier this year came as an ominous warning that Wahhabi inspired terrorists continue to pose a threat to the country and may seek to take advantage of its deteriorating situation.
Viewed against this backdrop, increasing assistance to the Lebanese army — which is viewed as a symbol of stability in the country — seems like a prudent step on the part of the Biden administration that will serve to prevent Lebanon from sliding into an intractable conflict similar to Iraq or Afghanistan.
The big question however is whether Washington is increasing its assistance to prevent such a scenario or whether it has something else in mind: namely to target Hezbollah.
During a panel hosted by the Middle East Institute on Lebanese-American security and defense ties, Pentagon officials appeared to focus on Hezbollah as the main security threat.
“Hezbollah’s terrorist and illicit activities threaten Lebanon’s security, stability and sovereignty” remarked deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul
Given such statements and the fact that Washington has a long record in attempting to weaken Hezbollah, one cannot rule out the possibility that the increased aid to the Lebanese army is part of plan to use this army against Hezbollah (if not now then sometime in the future)
Preserving American influence in Lebanon
The Biden administration’s intention of sending more military aid appears to contrast with the Trump administration’s approach of dealing with Lebanon as more like an Iranian aligned enemy.
As an institution which has traditionally been known to be an American ally, shoring up ties with the army serves to guarantee Washington a minimal level of influence in the country.
Interestingly, the Biden administration has taken this step at a time where superpower rivals like Russia are attempting to raise their profile in Lebanon.
A Hezbollah delegation visited Moscow last March and held a publicized meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during which the two sides discussed the situation in Lebanon including the need to form a government.
Meanwhile Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri held talks with senior Russian officials in Moscow in April.
Meeks’ letter also recommended establishing an international “Friends of Lebanon” group that would include countries like France.
Coordinating with France would indeed serve to preserve American influence in Lebanon, not least because the French maintain contacts with Hezbollah, by the far the most powerful and influential player in the country.
Again, however this would apply only if one were to assume that there is no anti-Hezbollah hidden agenda.
An American policy fixated on the demonization of Hezbollah would not serve the goal of the United States being an influential player in Lebanon. The Shiite movement is by far the strongest player in the country and its exclusion or even marginalization has proven impossible.
If Washington does indeed intend to coordinate with France on the Lebanese file it would do well to heed the advice of French president Emmanuel Macron and adopt a more realist approach that recognizes Hezbollah for the influential player it is.
What a suitable realist approach would look like
While increasing aid to the Lebanese army will not solve Lebanon’s problems, it does represent a step in the right direction provided that it’s not aimed against Hezbollah.
Preoccupation with the Shiite group would only serve to strengthen “other militias” that pose a much bigger danger to American interests. It could even be argued that Washington and Hezbollah share a common interest in preventing the rise of Wahhabi-inspired terror groups in the country.
A prudent realist approach would be for Washington to assist the Lebanese army to prevent the rise of the Wahhabi terrorist threat in any way possible, including collaboration between the army and Hezbollah. Such a scenario it not completely unthinkable and did in fact happen when the ISIS threat was at its peak in 2014.
Pursuing such a policy would help the United States avoid being sucked into another crisis in the Middle East and at the same time allow it to remain a relevant player in one of the region’s most pivotal countries.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.