BEIRUT — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday accused the Lebanon-based terror organization, Hezbollah, of threatening Lebanon and the region, and called for it to end its activities in Syria, to lower tensions there.
On the same day, Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, a former deputy head of Hezbollah’s executive council, who led the group’s forces in southern Lebanon during Israel’s 18-years of occupation, said in Tehran that “the Israeli enemy is living under the nightmare of a Hezbollah incursion into the Galilee.”
Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the assassination by a car bomb in Damascus of Hezbollah chief Imad Mughniyeh, Kaouk went on that the next war would be “Israel’s greatest disaster since [Israel’s independence] in 1948.”
The downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter plane during strikes against targets in Syria on Saturday had “harmed Israel’s superiority and created a new equation in the region,” he claimed.
On Saturday morning, an Iranian drone was flown into Israeli territory, near the Jordanian border, where it was shot down by an IAF Apache attack helicopter. In response to the drone incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said.
During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation was apparently hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed, injuring two pilots. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.
On Wednesday, while still on the Jordanian leg of his Middle East tour, Tillerson had struck a softer tone towards the organization, conceding that Hezbollah was part of the “political process” in Lebanon.
In Thursday’s talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut, the secretary of state offered Washington’s support for a “free and democratic” Lebanon.
But at at time of tension between Lebanon and Israel, notably over the role of the Shiite Hezbollah — which controls a militia of tens of thousands of men and has already fought one war with Israel in 2006 and threatens to wage another — that dominated much of the conversation.
A powerful force in Lebanon’s political sphere through its presence in Hariri’s government, Hezbollah is an arch-foe of Israel and branded a “terrorist” organization by the United States.
It is a key ally of Lebanon’s President, Michel Aoun, and of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It has fighters on the ground in Syria supporting Assad’s regime.
Hezbollah’s influence was at the heart of a political crisis in Lebanon over Hariri’s shock resignation announced from Saudi Arabia in November that was later rescinded.
“The United States stands with the Lebanese people for a free and democratic Lebanon,” Tillerson, the highest-ranking US official to visit the country in four years, wrote in the visitors’ book after talks with President Aoun.
“We support a free, democratic Lebanon free of influence of others, and we know that Lebanese Hezbollah is influenced by Iran. This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon’s long-term future,” he said.
Aoun asked Tillerson, during a meeting at the presidential palace, for US help in preventing what he said were ongoing Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty on the ground, at sea, and in the air.
His call coincides with heightened tensions between Lebanon and Israel over contested rights to offshore natural gas exploration in the Mediterranean, and Israel’s construction of a border wall that Lebanon says encroaches on its territory. Lebanon is also protesting Israeli violations of Israeli airspace, often to bomb Iranian or Syrian targets inside neighboring Syria.
Earlier this month, Lebanese military officials complained about the wall impinging on Lebanese soil when they met with their Israeli counterparts at a regular tripartite meeting chaired by UN peacekeepers in Ras al-Naqoura, near the border.
Israel, for its part, has been warning that Iran — through Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria — is turning both countries into forward bases to manufacture rockets and attack the Jewish state.
But Aoun also signaled, according to Channel 10 News, that Lebanon was “committed to calming the situation on the Lebanon-Israel border,” and did not want war.
After his talks in Beirut, where he also met with Lebanese Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri, Tillerson was due to head to Turkey to seek to ease tensions with the NATO ally over Ankara’s ongoing operation against a US-backed Kurdish militia inside Syria.