- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday rejected the notion his tiny and diverse country — home to both Sunni and Shia Muslim populations as well as Christians — is jammed in the middle of a growing Middle East power struggle between the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran.

“We are not stuck,” said Mr. Hariri, while expressing distaste with the idea that Tehran is pushing to expand its regional influence through a so-called “Shia Crescent” of militias across otherwise Sunni-dominated territory between Iran and Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hezbollah is based and has a firm political foothold.

Speaking with a small group of reporters at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, Mr. Hariri also criticized the push by some U.S. lawmakers to craft new sanctions against Hezbollah. Sloppily written sanctions, he said, could inflict unwarranted damage on Lebanon’s economy, when what is actually needed is more effective enforcement of existing sanctions.

The 47-year-old prime minister offered his views Tuesday, hours after meeting at the White House with President Trump, who suggested he’ll proceed with significant American aid to help Lebanon cope with more than a million Syrian refugees — despite the administration’s calls for big budget cuts the to State Department and USAID funding.

While the unified front that Mr. Trump and Mr. Hariri presented — they vowed broadly to work together in the fight against terrorism — was significant, it was Mr. Hariri’s comments later on Tuesday about big-picture Saudi-Iran friction and Lebanon’s posture toward it that may be more impactful in the long run.

Despite several regional proxy wars playing out between the two, including Syria, which surrounds Lebanon to the north and east, Mr. Hariri flatly pushed back against the notion that the Middle East as a whole is fraught by Sunni-Shia divisions.

“I think the namings that are flying all over the world today, ‘this is Shia, this is Sunni,’ I think it’s the biggest lie,” said Mr. Hariri, himself a Sunni Muslim with a history of business ties to Saudi Arabia. “At the end of the day, its not about Shia or Sunni, it’s about politics,” he said.

Lebanon, Mr. Hariri added, stands today on its own, making its own decisions, regardless of what may be the meddlesome desires of Riyadh, Tehran or even the United States. “The days of anybody telling us, ‘You have to do this or that,’ is not acceptable,” he said.

“We don’t want to be a part of any regional alliance. If Iran is thinking of a policy in the region, we will not accept it and we will discuss it with the Iranians.”

At the same time, he asserted that while Riyadh has backed Lebanon economically over the years, “Saudi Arabia is not a country that interferes in Lebanon; it has never interfered in Lebanon.”

But it’s Iran’s history of meddling in Lebanon — and particularly the role being played by Hezbollah — that’s likely to be a stick-point for the Trump administration, as it decides whether to proceed with assistance that, during the Obama years, found Beirut among the top six recipients of U.S. military aid worldwide.

Hezbollah’s political influence in Lebanon is felt most in the nation’s chaotic parliament. While Mr. Hariri’s Future Movement party holds most seats, Hezbollah is among the top four of Lebanon’s nearly two dozen parties.

The catch is that the U.S. government has listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization since 1997 — a factor that adds dramatic complexity to Washington’s policy toward Beirut.

Debate has long been heated over how and whether the United States should be providing security-related support to a nation whose parliament includes a serious party bloc representing a group listed as a terrorist organization.

The issue appeared vexing for Mr. Trump on Tuesday. During a joint press conference with Mr. Hariri, the president said that “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.”

The comment seemed odd to some observers, who noted the parliamentary seats held by Hezbollah in Beirut.

Mr. Hariri acknowledged during his comments Tuesday evening that Hezbollah is an “issue” that presents challenges. But what’s important for Washington, he said, is that “Lebanon remains stable [and] Lebanon does not get affected by the conflict in Syria.”

Acrimony over the Hezbollah issue has festered since the 1980s civil war in Lebanon.

Washington has long-blamed Hezbollah for the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine compound in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military military personnel as well as 58 French peacekeepers. Hezbollah was more recently blamed for a 2005 bombing that assassinated former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri — the current prime minister’s father.

But America’s posture toward Lebanon has shifted over the years, most significantly amid the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Some 1.5 million Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon over the past five years, heightening the potential for instability in the tiny nation whose own population of just 5 million is a fragile mix of Sunni and Shia Muslims and various Christian sects.

The Obama administration increased USAID money to help the Lebanese government deal with the refugee surge. It also bolstered the flow of U.S. weaponry and support to the Lebanese military to expand its ability to respond to potential spillover from of extremist jihadist activity from Syria — a reality currently being born out by Islamic State activity inside refugee camps in Lebanon.

While Washington has given roughly $80 million a year in military aid to Lebanon since 2006, the figure was bumped to roughly $150 million in 2015, according to published reports.

Mr. Hariri said he was confident after meeting with Mr. Trump Tuesday that the current White House will keep up the support. “He understands that Lebanon must be helped,” the prime minister said.

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