By Dan Williams
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.