JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Tuesday that the Hezbollah guerrilla group, its most potent enemy in neighboring Lebanon, had gained control over that country’s U.S.-sponsored conventional military, signaling both would be in Israeli gunsights in any future war.
Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s remarks were a hard tack from more measured recent Israeli estimates that the Lebanese army maintained autonomy even if some of its troops cooperated with the better-armed, Iranian-aligned guerrillas.
Outlining potential threats in Lebanon, where Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006, Lieberman said in a speech: “We are no longer talking about Hezbollah alone”.
“We are talking about Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, and to my regret this is the reality. The Lebanese army has turned into an integral part of Hezbollah’s command structure. The Lebanese army has lost its independence and become an inseparable part of the Hezbollah apparatus,” Lieberman said.
There was no immediate response from Lebanon, which is formally in a state of war with Israel, nor from the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Tel Aviv.
The Lebanese army has previously said it operates independently from Hezbollah, most recently during an operation against Islamic State militants at the Lebanese-Syrian border, during which the army said there was absolutely no coordination with Hezbollah fighters who attacked IS from the Syrian side.
Hosting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in July for aid talks, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Beirut’s efforts to stem the spread of Islamic State and pledged continued help from Washington.
”America’s assistance can help ensure that the Lebanese army is the only defender Lebanon needs,” Trump said.
The Pentagon said Washington has provided Lebanon with more than $1.5 billion in military assistance since 2006, and that U.S. special forces have been providing “training and support” for the Lebanese army since 2011.
“Strengthening the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces) also advances a range of U.S. interests in the Middle East that includes not only countering the spread of ISIS (Islamic State) and other violent extremists but also stemming the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said.
While welcoming U.S. action against Islamic State, Israel sees Iran, Hezbollah and their allies as the greater threat and worries about their entrenchment in Syria as they help President Bashar al-Assad beat back a more than six-year-old rebellion.
Lieberman said Israel sought to avoid going to war again on its northern front, which, he predicted, would include Syria.
“In anything that transpires, it will be one theater, Syria and Lebanon together, Hezbollah, the Assad regime and all of the Assad regime’s collaborators,” he said.
Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Andrew Heavens