Trump administration quietly releases delayed Lebanon military aid
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Trump administration quietly releases delayed Lebanon military aid

$105 million in funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces were held up without explanation; Israel had asked that it be conditioned on dismantling Hezbollah missile program

Lebanese marine special forces soldiers march during a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, November 22, 2019. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
Lebanese marine special forces soldiers march during a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, November 22, 2019. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has quietly released more than $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon, after months of unexplained delay that led some lawmakers to compare it to the aid for Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

The $105 million in Foreign Military Financing funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces was released just before the Thanksgiving holiday and lawmakers were notified of the step on Monday, according to two congressional staffers and an administration official.

All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to the matter.

The money had languished in limbo at the Office of Management and Budget since September, although it had already won congressional approval and had overwhelming support from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. The White House has yet to offer any explanation for the delay despite repeated queries from Congress.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat-Conneticut, had pressed the administration since October to either release the funds or explain why it was being withheld. The State Department had notified Congress on September 5 that the money would be spent.

Earlier this month, the delay came up in impeachment testimony by David Hale, the No. 3 official in the State Department, according to the transcript of the closed-door hearing. Hale described growing consternation among diplomats about the delay.

The White House and the Office of Management and Budget have declined to comment on the matter. The State Department offered only a cryptic response to queries, defending the assistance, but also calling for Lebanese authorities to implement economic reforms and rein in corruption.

A US Air Force plane carrying weapons and equipment for the Lebanese army, arrives at a Lebanese air force base, in Beirut airport, Lebanon, February 13, 2019. (American Embassy in Lebanon via AP)

As with the Ukraine assistance, OMB did not explain the delay. However, unlike Ukraine, there has been no suggestion that US President Donald Trump is seeking “a favor” from Lebanon in exchange for the aid, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The delay had frustrated the national security community, which believes the assistance that pays for US-made military equipment for the Lebanese army is essential, particularly as Lebanon reels from financial chaos and mass protests.

The aid is intended to help counter Iran’s influence in Lebanon, which is highlighted by the presence of the Iranian-supported Shiite Hezbollah movement in the government and the group’s militias, officials have said.

Israeli officials have publicly called on its partners in the West not to give any aid to Lebanon unless the country tackles Hezbollah’s program to obtain or produce advanced precision-guided missile. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks repeatedly warned that Iran was seeking to place missiles around the region to be able to hit Israel.

However, US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said during a visit to Jerusalem last month that Washington was not fulfilling Israel’s request.

“We consider the funding of the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] to be a good investment. Of course, we listen to our ally Israel and we will take their request under consideration,” Schenker said.

Since 2006, the US has provided more than $2 billion in bilateral foreign assistance to Lebanon. Currently, the country receives $105 million per year.

Hezbollah fighters stand atop a car mounted with a mock rocket, as they parade during a rally to mark the seventh day of Ashoura, in the southern village of Seksakiyeh, Lebanon, October 9, 2016. (Mohammed Zaatari/ AP)

Some pro-Israel members of Congress have long sought to de-fund the Lebanese military, arguing that it has been compromised by Hezbollah, which the US designates as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has long advocated cutting the assistance and is expected to introduce legislation that would bar such aid as long as Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s government.

The Pentagon and State Department reject that view, saying the army is the only independent Lebanese institution capable of resisting Hezbollah.

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