BEIRUT — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Lebanon on Thursday to distance itself from the Hezbollah militia as he met with senior government officials, including political allies of the group regarded by the United States as terrorists.
After arriving from Jordan for a brief visit of just a few hours, Tillerson went directly to Baabda Palace to meet with President Michel Aoun, who maintains close relations with the group. The secretary of state called it in Lebanon’s best interests to “disassociate” itself from Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, and its foreign adventures.
“Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime,” Tillerson said in a news conference with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose coalition government includes the group.
“Their presence in Iraq and Yemen has also fueled violence. And the consequences of Hezbollah’s involvement in these far-off conflicts — which have nothing to do with Lebanon — are felt here.”
Tillerson’s stop in Beirut represents an effort to push back against Iran’s influence in the region, a major component of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is one reason why the United States is likely to maintain a military presence in Syria long after Islamic State militants are routed. Hezbollah poses a threat to neighboring Israel, and the militia fought in Syria alongside the Lebanese Army against Islamic State fighters.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against individuals associated with Hezbollah, which the United States designated as a terrorist group two decades ago. It was described by officials as a first step in the administration’s efforts to battle Iran’s support for armed groups throughout the region.
“It is unacceptable for a militia like Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government,” Tillerson said. “The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese Armed Forces.
At a Wednesday news conference in Jordan, Tillerson called Iran’s backing of Hezbollah “unhelpful” to Lebanon, but said the reality was that “they also are part of the political process in Lebanon.” A State Department official later clarified that the United States believes Lebanon would be “better off without Hezbollah’s terrorism and malign influence.”
In his talks with Aoun, Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, Tillerson also waded into a long-simmering maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon.
In some ways, the talks were in the wheelhouse of the former ExxonMobil chief. They involve offshore oil and natural gas exploration in a patch of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon recently signed a deal with an international consortium to start drilling in an area that Israel claims belongs to it. The consortium involves companies from Italy, France and Russia.
Tillerson’s penchant for arriving early caused a minor flap in Lebanon when he showed up a few minutes ahead of schedule for his meeting with Aoun. In footage widely viewed on television, Tillerson was shown sitting alone, just waiting, beside an empty chair. After two or three minutes, the Lebanese foreign minister walked in and they shook hands. The Lebanese media characterized the lapse as a gesture of coolness, though Lebanese officials denied it had any meaning whatsoever.
If it did, Tillerson didn’t seem to care. In the prime minister’s visitor book after they talked, Tillerson thanked him for a warm, frank and productive discussion. “The United States stands with the Lebanese people for a free and democratic Lebanon,” he wrote.