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US defends role of Lebanon army as Israel threatens to attack

Lebanese soldiers stand guard at the Lebanon-Syria border on 28 August 2017 [Muhammed Ali Akman/Anadolu Agency]

The United States pledged continued support for Lebanon’s military today, calling it a potential counterweight to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, even as Israel said the two forces were indistinguishable and fair game in any future war.

The Lebanese Armed Forces took no part in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, which killed around 1,200 people in Lebanon and 158 Israelis. It has received more than $1.5 billion in US military assistance since then and, in the last seven years, training and support from US special forces too.

With Hezbollah having helped sway the Syrian civil war in President Bashar Al-Assad’s favour, Israel and the United States both worry that the Iranian-backed militia could now broaden its clout in its Lebanese heartland. They disagree on whether the Lebanese army would help or hinder Hezbollah’s expansion.

“We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is the only legitimate force in Lebanon,” David Satterfield, acting assistant US secretary of state, told the conference organised by Tel Aviv University’s INSS think-tank.

Satterfield, a former US ambassador to Lebanon, added that the Lebanese army “could well serve as a counter-weight to Hezbollah’s desire to expand its own influence there, as well as Iran’s reach in Lebanon”.

Lieberman: We do not want a third war with Lebanon

But speaking three hours later on the same stage, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his view that the Lebanese army was subordinate to the better-equipped Hezbollah.

“As far as I’m concerned, all of Lebanon – the Lebanese army, Lebanon and the Lebanese army – are no different from Hezbollah,” said Lieberman, a far-rightist in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.

“They are part of Hezbollah and they will all pay the full price” for any large-scale attack on Israel, Lieberman added.

The Lebanese military has previously said it operates independently from Hezbollah, most recently during an operation against Daesh at the Lebanese-Syrian border last year, during which the army said there was absolutely no coordination with Hezbollah fighters who attacked Daesh from the Syrian side.

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