Pompeo lands in Lebanon amid backlash over Trump tweet

Pompeo lands in Lebanon amid political storm over Trump's Golan tweet
4 min read
22 March, 2019
Mike Pompeo has met Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut, following a whirlwind tour of the Middle East.
Pompeo's visit to Lebanon comes following tough times for Hariri [Getty]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew into Beirut on Friday, to meet Lebanese political leaders as part of a Middle East tour aimed at curbing the growing Iranian influence in the region.

Pompeo met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Friday, the pro-Western politician who has been sidelined from power since his recent detention in Riyadh and the ascendency of Hizballah in an amicable exchange, followed by talks with President Michel Aoun and leading ministers. 

But Pompeo's visit appears to be overshadowed by a tweet sent hours earlier by President Donald Trump, who said it was time for the US to recognise Israel's illegal annexation of Syria's Golan Heights - something that will be rejected by all political persuasions in Lebanon.

"After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognise Israel's Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!" Trump tweeted on Thursday.

Even if Pompeo was taken by surprise by the initial announcement, he appeared to back Trump's call on the Golan as being "Israeli" - despite the rest of the world considering it illegally occupied territory.

"As a cadet, I studied the battles of the Golan. Israeli heroism there saved this great nation. [Trump's] bold decision to recognise Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights honors the sacrifices of the Israeli people and reality. It's proper for this land to be part of Israel," he tweeted.

If Pompeo's visit was in part to empower the US' Lebanese allies, Bachar al-Halabi - Middle East Researcher at the Asfari Institute, the American University of Beirut (AUB) - said Trump's tweets will likely be a boon for Lebanon's pro-Hizballah axis.

"In a Lebanese context, it definately serves the Hizballah camp and its resistance rhetoric, weakening the credibility of the people who will sit down with Pompeo, given he represents Trump - who in the resistance camp's point of view - is enforcing the Israeli will over the Arab one," Halabi told The New Arab.

Pompeo stopped at Israel before Lebanon, when he became the first secretary of state to visit the Western Wall - in occupied East Jerusalem - with an Israeli prime minister.

The US top diplomat's visit to Israel has been seen as a formal endorsement of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's re-election bid - amid corruption claims - but analysts suggest the main focus of Pompeo's tour is to shore-up allies against Iran's growing influence in the region.

In a meeting with Lebanon's Speaker of the House Nabih Berri he warned against the ascendency of the Iran-backed movement - which has a stronger base in parliament and government than ever before - although the Amal chief warned that sanctions on Hizballah will hurt the whole country.

"[Pompeo] highlighted US concerns about Hizballah's destabilising activities in Lebanon and the region and the risks posed to Lebanon's security, stability and prosperity," US deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said.

Pompeo's visit comes shortly after Lebanon agreed a new cabinet, late January, following a nine-month deadlock. The formation of the government will lend more weight to the secretary of state's demands to prevent Hizballah - which has three cabinet positions - from enriching itself from its increased political powers, Halabi said.

"Lebanese politicians cannot dodge policy related issues now as would have been the case had there been a vacuum. Pompeo's visit has a clear agenda and strategy - the carrot and stick approach - with Lebanon," he said.

Bachar said that Hassan Nasrallah's recent plea for cash from supporters should not be taken at face value, and that he is likely preparing Hizballah for the repurcusions of further international pressure.

One sign of growing hostility to Hizballah was seen in February, when the UK government banned the political wing of the movement.

Pompeo's visit will reaffirm Washington's support for the Lebanese state and military - which receives $70 million a year in aid from the US - following mixed messages about the US' earnestness towards the Beirut government during Barack Obama and Donald Trump's eras.

Washington is now keen to send a message that it will not leave Lebanon's fate to Iran, or Russia, Halabi added, with the regime in neighbouring Syria heavily indebted to Tehran due to its support in the country's war.

Pompeo might pressure Beirut to not normalise ties with Bashar al-Assad's regime and return refugees to Syria - which is still viewed as unsafe by the UN. Domestically, clipping Hizballah's wings could prove more difficult. 

"Right now the power dynamics in the country are in favour of Hizballah - they control the parliament and the government and more importantly the people in Lebanon, albeit a conisiderable chunk with anti-Hizballah sentiments," the Lebanese researcher added.

"No one is willing or even equipped to put up a fight against Hizballah or its influence."