Analysis of US Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield’s trip to Lebanon began before his visit had ended. Usually the Assistant Secretary of States visits are centred on issues related to Israel in the event of a security breach, for example, the issues surrounding the tunnels Hezbollah have been accused of digging, gas or the demarcation of the border, particularly in the gas fields that are shared between the two States which are the subject of a dispute.
In his recent visits, Satterfield decided to only meet the founders of the March 14 movement. Hence, there are many interpretations and analysis concerning his mission and what it means, with some wanting to make use of the visit for their domestic benefit by pointing to a change in US policy towards Lebanon, all the while knowing that it has remained largely consistent over the past years. The US still distinguishes between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state which is why the administration continues to provide support to official Lebanese institutions including the army, security forces and even local municipalities through the US Government Aid Program.
Even in the matter of Lebanese banks, the administration acts with great caution, as it did with the Lebanese Canadian Bank when did not impose sanctions on the Central Bank and hold it responsible for money-laundering schemes tied to Hezbollah. It turned a blind eye and allowed the sale of the bank’s assets, and agreed to a settlement of 150 million dollars which the bank forfeit to the US as a fine for bypassing US sanctions on Hezbollah.
President Trump's administration didn't object the appointment Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese minister even after the uproar it caused and only warned Hezbollah not to exploit its newly gained position in the Lebanese cabinet and channel funds from the state to fund the militant group. It is therefore clear that US policy toward Lebanon fluctuates between intensifying pressure on Hezbollah by draining its sources of funding abroad and limiting the pressure to avoid chaos in Lebanon. This makes for a very complex policy due to the overlap of the two sides.
But recent developments in Lebanon involving a Hezbollah opposition group which is subject to the will of the party have confused US policy toward Lebanon. From the election of Aoun as President to the approval of a strange electoral law and the formation of the government, Hezbollah was able to impose its agenda on the country and all major political parties were responsive on the pretext that they want to maintain stability and prefer political settlements to confrontations. Critical voices were raised home and abroad citing Iran’s hold over Lebanon through Hezbollah.
The first to object to the accusation that Lebanon is under Iranian control were the founders of the March 14 movement. Perhaps the clearest expression of this position came from the President who following the UK government’s decision to add the political wing of Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations said to the British Minister of State for the Middle East Alistair Burt: ”Hezbollah's expansion in the region does not mean that its influence on Lebanese politics goes beyond its capacity as part of the Lebanese people and its representation in the government and parliament.”
Satterfield's visit comes as preparations are underway for a possible visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the purpose of motivating opponents of Hezbollah to make this distinction more pronounced in political discourse, especially after recent political developments in which Hezbollah's control over decisions in Lebanon was revealed.
Sources which met with Satterfield told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that he informed leaders that the US does not want to involve Lebanon in the sanctions because the country should not pay the price for the lack of distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state. It was reported that he said Lebanon cannot bear the responsibility of others’ actions but that the Lebanese government should not allow Hezbollah to benefit from public money through its role in the cabinet to circumvent the sanctions.
The US and Europe have a unified view in their approach of the Lebanese file, as Europe fears that any tension in Lebanon will result in a flow of Syrian refugees.
US policy in the region in general and Lebanon, in particular, did not prevent Hezbollah from growing its influence, especially at home, and even weakened its opponents. American policy in Iraq and Syria in Obama's era and even under Trump relied somewhat on the help of Iran and its militias in the ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This gave Tehran influence in both capitals and led Tehran MP Ali Reza Zakani, who is close to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to announce the cities are under the control of his country. And so on the one hand, the US-Iranian partnership is in a fierce fight against ISIS both Iraq and Syria, while on the other hand there are harsh US sanctions - a contradiction that is not conducive to results the US wants, which is to reduce the influence of Iran and its militias.