The Trump administration is worried humanitarian aid for Lebanon will end up in the hands of U.S.-designated terror group Hezbollah if routed through the government in Beirut, according to senior U.S. officials.
The U.S. and other countries have shipped emergency food and medical supplies to Beirut in the wake of the blast earlier this month that razed much of Beirut’s downtown, but officials in Washington are adamant about using alternative channels for further aid to ensure its contributions aren’t used by the group.
U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale, who returned from a three-day trip to Lebanon last week, said his main message to the Lebanese officials, politicians and activists he met with was to urge fundamental policy overhauls needed to rid the country of endemic corruption.
The U.S. will “be there with the immediate humanitarian emergency help that any human being would want to offer at a moment of stress like this,” Mr. Hale told journalists in a briefing. “But for the kind of substantial assistance that the Lebanese are asking for in order to restructure their finances and their economy, it’s going to take leadership that’s committed to these deep reforms that we’ve been talking to the Lebanese about for years now.”
U.S. officials are particularly concerned that Hezbollah’s expansive role in a government that is plagued by corruption would mean the Iran-backed group would benefit from humanitarian supplies and financing funded by American taxpayers.
Designated a foreign terror group by the U.S. in 1997, Hezbollah and its agents have long been a prime target of sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department, which says the group is responsible for deadly bombings against the U.S. and its allies. Hezbollah has come under increasing pressure by the Trump administration as the White House has prosecuted a so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its allies.
Western officials and analysts say the group’s provision of health and other social services has been a key platform for bolstering political support in the country. Such services have become even more critical as the blast rocked an economy already in crisis and as the Trump administration’s economy-wide sanctions campaign against the group’s chief benefactor, the clerical regime in Tehran, squeezed Hezbollah’s financing.
Of the $18 million in aid the U.S. has already committed, the Department of Defense delivered food and medical packages to the Lebanese army, while assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development is going through nongovernmental organizations.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for fraud, waste and abuse of American taxpayer resources,” said Pooja Jhunjhunwala, USAID’s spokesperson. “USAID is not providing humanitarian assistance to the government of Lebanon.”
The agency’s vetting process for local distribution particularly seeks to ensure “resources are not inadvertently supporting individuals or entities that are terrorists, support terrorists or are affiliated with terrorists,” she said.
Ms. Jhunjhunwala said USAID’s assistance is being directed through the United Nations’ World Food Program and delivery of medical supplies through the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese Red Cross and Lebanese American University hospitals.
U.S. officials say Lebanon’s latest crisis hasn’t changed their opposition to a multibillion-dollar bailout the government was seeking from the International Monetary Fund to rescue its flailing economy. Washington, as the IMF’s most powerful shareholder, said it wouldn’t back a bailout until Beirut agreed to broad policy overhauls that Western officials say are critical to address the country’s systemic corruption, a problem that those officials say provides Hezbollah the ability to finance its military and terror operations and expand its political power.
But as the U.S. attempts to use the current political crisis to curb Hezbollah’s control over the country, some officials say humanitarian aid and financing is not only vital to meeting the needs of the Lebanese people, but also supporting its diplomatic goals.
That aid is especially important to help balance out sanctions the administration is considering levying in an attempt to spur long-needed policy reforms.
“This is an inflection point in Lebanon’s history that may make it possible to change its course,” a senior administration official said. “Our goal is not to interfere, but to hold accountable those people who are exploiting the system to their own advantage,” the senior official said, citing Hezbollah and its allies in particular.
The administration’s concerns are shared by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators said that while the State Department and USAID should use all available tools to help Lebanon cope with the crisis, it urged wariness of aid channeled through the government.
“It is sadly telling that there is little to no faith in providing assistance directly to the Lebanese government due to its rampant corruption,” the senators wrote in a letter to the State Department and USAID.
Representatives for Lebanon’s mission to the United Nations and for Hezbollah didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Heavy U.S. sanctions against a foreign government can hinder humanitarian work on the ground. Last year, as the U.S. ratcheted up its use of sanctions against Venezuelan officials to put pressure on President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, nonprofit groups said the prospect of hefty fines for skirting U.S. sanctions had made some banks skittish about doing business with humanitarian organizations working in the country.
Humanitarian groups in Venezuela said they had had U.S. bank accounts closed and transactions frozen as financial institutions took precautionary steps to comply with sanctions.
Meanwhile, the Maduro regime’s military last year blocked attempts by the U.S. to provide its own aid to Venezuelans.
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