A recent news conference is once again raising concerns over President Trump’s understanding of world affairs and his ability to guide the United States’ complex Middle East foreign policy. During a news conference last week with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, President Trump characterized Lebanon as being on the “front lines” in combating various terrorist groups, including Hezbollah.
While it is true that the U.S. has taken the step of condemning Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and is considering imposing additional sanctions on the group, President Trump’s statement does not reflect an understanding of the complexity of Hezbollah’s role in the politics of the region. Within Lebanon, the political wing of the group shares power in a divided coalition government. Under the terms of the country’s constitution, the country’s president must be a Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament must be a Shiite Muslim. Lebanon’s president and Hezbollah ally, Michel Aoun, came to power after parliamentary elections in October. Hariri, who had previously accused Aoun of supporting Syrian elements accused of assassinating his father in 2005, reluctantly threw his support behind Aoun after other alternatives had been exhausted. Outside of Lebanon, Hezbollah receives military and financial backing from Iran and is allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in fighting ISIS in both Lebanon and Syria.
During the joint news conference, President Trump said, “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah.” He also described Hezbollah as a menace to Lebanon and the region. When asked to clarify the U.S. position regarding Hezbollah, President Trump advised he would provide more information within 24 hours. Prime Minister Hariri did not respond to the president’s comment at the news conference or later in the day when pressed by reporters. He did, however, say that sanctions aimed at banks doing business with Hezbollah could damage the Lebanese banking system as a whole.
Prime Minister Hariri was in the U.S. to request additional economic support for Lebanon, which is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees are believed to be in Syria. The U.S. State Department has agreed to provide $140 million in aid to Lebanon. President Trump has also promised continued military assistance to prevent ISIS and other terrorist organizations from expanding into Lebanon; however, it unclear how much assistance will be given or what form it will take.