The Trump administration has frozen all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million that both the State Department and Congress approved in September, congressional officials said Friday.
The halt to American funding of the Lebanese Armed Forces, an important multisectarian group, comes at a critical time for Lebanon, as officials are grappling with the country’s largest street protests since its independence in 1943 and a change in leadership forced by the demonstrations. A freeze on the assistance could give Iran and Russia an opening to exert greater influence over the Lebanese military, analysts say, and perhaps even allow the Islamic State and Al Qaeda to gain greater footholds in the country.
The delivery of military aid, especially in cases that involve White House intervention, has become a delicate and divisive issue in Washington. Congressional committees are overseeing an impeachment inquiry into whether President Trump held up $391 million in military aid to Ukraine in an effort to coerce Ukrainian leaders to do political favors for him. Though the president has denied it, senior administration officials have testified that there was indeed a quid pro quo, and the top American diplomat in Ukraine said he sent a cable telling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it was “folly” to withhold the aid.
The Pentagon and State Department pressed for the aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces, congressional aides said, and officials in both departments say the military organization is an important bulwark against extremist elements and armed factions of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group that has political and military wings.
But officials on the national security staff at the White House recently asked the Office of Management and Budget to freeze all aid to the Lebanese military, two congressional officials said Friday. Officials at the State Department and Pentagon only learned of the halt in recent days. It is unclear if anyone has told the Lebanese government of the freeze.
The State Department referred questions about the freeze to the budget office, which did not have immediate comment, and the Defense Department referred questions to the White House, where officials declined to comment.
On Friday afternoon, Nathan A. Sales, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, said, when asked about the freeze, that the Lebanese military was an important counterweight to Hezbollah, though he did not address the aid freeze itself.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, Edward Wong, Vivian Yee and Michael Crowley