U.S. President Donald Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the White House, July 25, 2017.
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The last time Lebanese leader Saad Hariri met with a U.S. president—in January 2011 with Barack Obama—he began the visit as prime minister and ended it as a private citizen. Just as Hariri began his summit with Obama, Hezbollah members and their allies resigned en masse from the unity government, leading to its collapse. Last week, Hariri—who regained the post of prime minister in December 2016 after agreeing to support the election of Hezbollah ally, General Michel Aoun, to the presidency—held talks with President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials in Washington. Hezbollah was once more busy back home. It launched a military offensive against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an al Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, in the hills of eastern Lebanon, and roundly defeated them. Hezbollah’s actions underscored the tensions in the Lebanese state’s coexistence with the group even as the trip to Washington indicated progress in U.S.-Lebanese relations.

Hariri led an official delegation that included Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and the central bank governor Riad Salameh. They visited Washington to consolidate relations with the new administration and to argue for continued U.S. support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), as well as for refugee assistance and economic investment. Hariri also urged policymakers in Congress, the Treasury Department, and the International Monetary Fund to ensure that the new sanctions against Hezbollah do not destabilize the Lebanese banking system.

Hariri’s Washington meetings seemed generally successful. In a joint press conference with Hariri, Trump praised Lebanon’s armed forces and extolled the country’s generosity in receiving Syrian refugees. Hariri said that he had received assurances that U.S. aid to the LAF would remain at the previous $80 million per year level and would not be slashed, as had been proposed in the White House’s own budget. The day after the meeting, Washington announced $140 million in additional refugee aid to Lebanon. On the issue of sanctions, much remains unclear. Trump said he would make an announcement about that later, but no announcement has been made so far, and the Lebanese delegation visits with officials on the Hill did not bear conclusive results. Overall, however, the prime minister had a good rapport with the new U.S. president and he moved the needle forward on several bilateral issues.

The biggest problem for Hariri during the talks was that he could do nothing about Trump’s potentially divisive language during the meeting, such as when he lumped Hezbollah, which has members that are a part of Hariri’s government, with terrorist groups like the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and al Qaeda. When Trump said that Lebanon was “on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” the prime minister could only squirm uncomfortably, knowing that Hezbollah would take issue with such a statement back home. Moreover, during meetings with think-tankers and journalists, Hariri acknowledged and expressed regret that it was Hezbollah, not the Lebanese army, that had launched the offensive against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. He faced regular questioning in Washington related to Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon and he has faced criticism from Hezbollah and its allies since his return to Lebanon, over the weekend, for not objecting to Trump’s characterization of the group.

The contradictions between the government and Hezbollah will only be heightened by Hezbollah’s successful offensive in the roughly 40 square miles in the mountains of northeast Lebanon that had been held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. The army had been containing and bombarding the militants in those hills since 2014, but the government and army command kept postponing the decision to take them out. It was Hezbollah that seized the initiative to defeat them and is now taking the credit. As a result, the government and army are scrambling to prepare a similar offensive against an adjoining ISIS enclave. 

Through its assault on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Hezbollah was able to reclaim 90 percent of the jihadists and reportedly killed over 120 of their fighters. The jihadists are now in the process of relocating their 1,500 remaining fighters and 6,000 civilian family members from northeast Lebanon to the Syrian city of Idlib. The negotiations were conducted by the head of Lebanese General Security and involved Hezbollah, as well as the Syrian government, Turkey, and Qatar. Part of the relocation deal involves the release of four Hezbollah fighters who are in the custody of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

In a televised speech last Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah celebrated the victory.  The military operation itself helped shore up Hezbollah’s national image after years of bitter critique over its involvement in the Syrian civil war.

With Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham now all but defeated in Lebanon, there remains a group of ISIS fighters holed up in the adjoining hills north of the former al Qaeda enclave. The government was caught flatfooted by the Hezbollah offensive and wants to regain credibility both domestically and internationally. As such, it has directed the LAF to prepare and prosecute the fight against ISIS. The LAF’s effort to remove ISIS will not be an easy or a short one, but it is critical for Lebanon’s security and for the credibility of the army and the state. The United States has been a close supporter of the LAF; that support should intensify during this critical battle against ISIS.

The defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS in Lebanon—or at least the groups’ territorial holdings—will be an important achievement. But the way it is accomplished—in part by the state and in part by an armed non-state actor that largely answers to a foreign power, Iran—raises fundamental questions about the viability of Lebanon’s current formula of “coexistence” between the state and Hezbollah. It also places a cloud over Lebanon’s relations with its international partners, especially the United States, which lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. (Of course, the United States itself was probably aware of Hezbollah’s plans: the U.S. military works closely with the LAF, especially in Lebanon’s Bekaa region, where the operation against the al Qaeda affiliate took place.)

As Hariri argued during his visit to Washington, Lebanon’s main priority in the near term is to maintain the precarious political stability that the country has managed to preserve since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, next door. The contradiction between the state and Hezbollah is a serious one, but there is no easy solution short of a civil or international war, either of which would destroy Lebanon. The future of Hezbollah—a group that is backed by Tehran and that is part of Iran’s power projection (visible as well in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen)—is a broad issue that Lebanon cannot solve by itself. It will have to be a part of a wider regional and international settlement. For now, Lebanon’s short-term ambition is to keep the country stable and secure and to move the economy forward. And for that to continue, Lebanon needs U.S. support. Seen in that light, Hariri’s visit to Washington, for all the bumps along the way, provided a way forward for improved U.S.-Lebanese relations. 

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  • PAUL SALEM is Vice President for Policy Analysis and Research at the Middle East Institute.
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