Pentagon hosts Lebanon’s army chief in bid to avert Israel-Hezbollah war

The Biden administration wants the Lebanese Armed Forces to deploy near the Israel-Lebanon border to help defuse a potentially explosive conflict with Hezbollah. But first, Lebanon’s top general needs to be able to pay his soldiers their salaries.

Lebanon’s top military general met with senior Biden administration officials and congressional lawmakers this week during his first visit to Washington in more than a year.

The quiet visit by Gen. Joseph Aoun, the first since February 2023 to Washington, comes as the Biden administration seeks to avert all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah, as the two sides launch increasingly deadly volleys of retaliation over Lebanon’s southern border amid Israel’s war in Gaza.

Aoun, who has been at the helm of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) since 2017, has sought funding and materiel support from the United States, Gulf states and European nations as he seeks to stabilize his forces’ ranks amid pay and recruitment shortfalls, largely the result of the worst economic crisis Lebanon has ever faced.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pressing for a cease-fire in the war in Gaza as a prerequisite step toward a negotiated de-escalation between Hezbollah and the Israeli military.

Dangerous escalation: The tit-for-tat on the Lebanon-Israel border took an aggressive turn on Wednesday when Hezbollah launched nearly 215 rockets into Israel in retaliation for airstrikes the night prior that killed one of the militia’s senior commanders.

Taleb Sami Abdullah was the highest-ranking Hezbollah commander to be killed since the recent bout of fighting began in October 2023 over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. He and three other Hezbollah officials were killed by Israeli strikes in the southern town of Jouya. Abdullah was the leader of the militia’s al-Nasr unit, the group said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Aoun sat down with senior White House and State Department officials, as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in Congress early this week.

Sources close to the discussions said the general’s interest in securing material support for his forces was mostly received positively by lawmakers, despite lingering skepticism among some House Republicans who have pressed for restricting US funding to Lebanon due to Iran’s outsized influence in the country.

It was a pleasure to welcome Gen. Joseph Aoun, Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, to the Pentagon. We discussed the current security situation in the Middle East as well as continued aims to de-escalate tensions.https://t.co/WDeRq60hBl pic.twitter.com/NoPmzyaMhT
— General CQ Brown, Jr. (@GenCQBrownJr) June 12, 2024

The Biden administration and Pentagon top brass have long viewed the LAF as a promising asset through which to build a bulwark to contain Hezbollah’s reach. Stabilizing the LAF amid Lebanon’s worsening crisis has been the subject of renewed interest in Washington as Iranian proxies have threatened to open new fronts against the Jewish state from Iraq, Syria and Yemen in retaliation for the IDF’s campaign in Gaza.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Tuesday to discuss “efforts to de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression,” the Pentagon said in a press release.

Washington’s top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, sat down with Aoun at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

“The two leaders exchanged insights on the current security situation in the Middle East, including continued aims to resolve tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border and the shared goal of avoiding regional escalation,” Joint Staff spokesperson US Navy Capt. Jereal Dorsey said in a statement.

“The US and Lebanon share a strong commitment to pursuing durable and sustainable security and stability in the Middle East region,” Dorsey’s statement read.

Between the lines: Biden administration officials want the LAF to prepare a force that could potentially deploy near the border to monitor a future buffer zone negotiated between Israel and Hezbollah.

Throughout their history, Israel and Lebanon have not agreed upon a mutually recognized border. Israeli forces last withdrew from Lebanon in 2006 after a monthlong war, but UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was never fully implemented, leaving the border dispute unresolved. Some 10,000 UN peacekeeping forces remain in Lebanon, yet that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit from building up positions near the border in recent years.

Hezbollah’s attacks amid the Oct. 7 war have elicited threats from Israeli leaders that they will launch a major military operation to push the militia back from the border area. The confrontation threatens to spiral into a larger war, drawing in other Iranian proxy militias and potentially Iran itself — a contingency that top officials in both Washington and Tehran have said they want to avoid.

American diplomats led by Biden’s energy envoy, Amos Hochstein, aspire to remedy the crisis via negotiations. But first, administration officials say a cease-fire in Gaza is needed. Hezbollah has refused to go along with US or French diplomatic initiatives to resolve the border crisis, saying it will only halt its attacks into Israel when the war in the Palestinian enclave stops.

What’s next: Hochstein last month said the Biden administration has been pushing for “a broad international package” to help fund the LAF, as well as another initiative to underwrite economic and infrastructure development in southern Lebanon to undercut Hezbollah’s influence in its historic stronghold.

Hochstein said the plan would require “an enormous amount of currency” to fund an LAF deployment to Lebanon’s south. “You need to recruit, train and equip, and that takes time,” he said.

“We have to have an agreement in place, ready to go — or at least almost ready to go — if we have the right opportunity to be able to implement it,” the envoy stressed.

In 2023, the United States pledged $72 million to offset the LAF’s difficulties paying soldiers’ salaries, but lack of progress on resolving Lebanon’s leadership vacuum has limited further direct financial support from Washington. Lebanon has not had a president since October 2022.

Meanwhile, Aoun has been seeking steady funding to keep his brigades afloat, as well as fuel, vehicles and maintenance support to keep the LAF running. The general heads next to US Central Command, the US military’s top headquarters for the Middle East, in Tampa, Florida, Al-Monitor’s sources said Wednesday.

Yes, but: An Israeli invasion of Lebanon would almost certainly scramble Washington’s plans.

Wednesday’s barrage was the largest by Hezbollah into northern Israel yet, coming just hours after Israel killed Taleb Sami Abdullah.

Abdullah was only the second commander claimed by the militia to have been killed during the ongoing conflict in Gaza. An Israeli airstrike killed the Radwan unit’s deputy commander, Wissam al-Tawil, in January.

Know more: The Biden administration’s eleventh-hour press to get Hamas to agree to a cease-fire hit a snag on Wednesday, as the group sent back the latest proposal with additional requests.

But US officials aren’t giving up yet. Top US diplomat Antony Blinken said his side was continuing to work to bridge the gaps between the positions of Israel and Hamas.

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