The World from The Hill: Lawmakers fear Hezbollah upper hand in Lebanon

Lawmakers are sounding alarms about the potential takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah, and are urging the White House to take steps to try to prevent such a scenario from becoming a reality.

One Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said he is "very frightened" about the possibility of war breaking out in the Middle East as allies of Iran circle Israel in this latest development.

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"Make no doubt about it — it's a very, very dangerous situation," Engel told The Hill.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri was visiting President Obama in Washington last week when word came that Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist group by the U.S., had pulled out of the unity government in protest of a forthcoming United Nations tribunal report that reportedly implicates senior members of the group, which has gained considerable traction in the Beirut government in recent years, in the 2005 assassination of Saad's father, former premier Rafik Hariri.

A Saturday report by Newsmax claimed that the report will show assassination links all the way back to the direct orders of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and a joint attack by Iran's Quds force and Hezbollah. Damascus is reportedly not off the hook either, with alleged cooperation with the government and its intelligence agency in the killing.

The U.N. tribunal is expected to release its findings Monday. Various reports indicate that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was racing to try to form a ruling coalition to declare the tribunal illegitimate.

"We will not allow our reputation and our dignity to be tarnished, nor will we allow anyone to conspire against us or to unjustly drench us in Hariri's blood," Nasrallah vowed Sunday in a televised speech.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, called Hezbollah "a cancer on Lebanon."

“It’s deeply concerning that forces who oppose a U.N.-led effort to expose the truth about the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would risk the welfare of the entire country by forcing the collapse of the Lebanese government," Issa said in a statement.

With a caretaker government in place as Hariri scrambles to cobble together his own coalition, many on Capitol Hill fear an emboldened Iran as its Hezbollah allies might keep the upper hand and install a puppet government. This means finding a Sunni prime minister who would be closely aligned with the Hezbollah-allied Shiite Parliament leader.

According to a Lebanese news report on Saturday, Hariri told the Lebanese Druze leader that the Hezbollah-led opposition wants him to "surrender and present concession after concession. ... To top it all off, they have a gun pointed to my head."

Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement this week that the U.S. must "strongly and consistently support" pro-West forces in the Lebanese government struggle.

“The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis is working to put an end to any hope for sovereignty, democracy, and freedom for Lebanon and the Lebanese people," she said. "The United States and other responsible nations must not repeat past mistakes where we failed to stand up to those who threaten Lebanon and all free nations."

The panel's ranking member, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), echoed that call in a statement.

“I stand firmly behind Prime Minister Hariri’s decision not to cave in to Hezbollah’s blackmail," Berman said. "This is a critical time for Lebanon to find a peaceful way forward, and I urge all Lebanese to reject violence in resolving this matter.”

But a key fear is that civil war will break out as Hezbollah eyes a full takeover.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who served under the administration of President George W. Bush and has been talking up his own possible presidential bid, told The Hill that the situation "reflects the reality that Hezbollah has held the shadow authority in Lebanon for some time."

However, he said the White House has "subordinated" Lebanon to the Israel-Palestinian issue, and now "all of that has come home to roost."

"You find very little from Obama except trying to find someone in Iran to shake hands with," Bolton said.

Eliot expressed frustration in the limits as to what the U.S. can presently do, but stressed that Washington needs to be prepared to make difficult choices and not allow a Hezbollah takeover.

"We have to make an assessment if war broke out if we could effectively arm the Lebanese militia, if they're capable at all of standing up to Hezbollah," Engel said. "It will take a lot of our diplomacy and maybe more than diplomacy to prevent them from taking over Lebanon.

"For all intents and purposes it would be a rogue state just like Iran," he warned. "We need to do whatever we can to make sure that doesn't happen."

The government collapse comes shortly after one lawmaker, appropriator Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), fired off a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy asking that the European ally back off its plans to sell 100 anti-tank missile systems to the Lebanese army out of fear they could fall into Hezbollah hands.

"As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)," Rothman wrote. "If this were to occur, Israel would be in grave danger of having your anti-tank missiles used against her."

On Thursday, Rothman told The Hill the week's events "only magnify my concerns that these anti-tank weapons don't fall into the hands of Hezbollah."

"Prudence dictates that we continue to pay extremely close attention to every new development and possibility, but that we not overreact by withdrawing any assistance to the Lebanese government or to the Lebanese Armed Forces," Rothman said.

Bolton said that the "high risk of internal conflict" in Lebanon put the region "very close" to hostilities similar to 2006, when another Iran ally, Hamas, launched attacks against Israel from Gaza, while Hezbollah fired its own rockets from Lebanon.

"Who knows what Iran would do on the broader front," Bolton warned, noting suspicions that Iran may want Hezbollah to provoke strife to keep Israel off balance and distract from goings-on in Tehran as it drives forward with its nuclear ambitions.

"I think it's even more dangerous than 2006," Engel said, citing reports that Hezbollah has not only rearmed in violation of the Security Council resolution that halted the earlier conflict but now has an even greater stockpile of weapons with longer reach — "Tel Aviv and maybe even farther."

This heightens the temptation for Israel to strike, and brings about "a hundred different scenarios, none of which are good," he said.

"We need to get our allies to support lots of coordination and discussion with Israel," Engel said. "The larger thing that we need to deal with is the whole Iranian nuclear catastrophe in the making."

How to deal with it, he said, involves confronting the country to which Obama just sent an ambassador for the first time in six years, bypassing Senate approval and infuriating many lawmakers.

"Hezbollah and Syria, they're all Iranian proxies," Engel said, slamming the appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. "There's no way that we should reward [President Bashar] Assad for walking hand in glove with terrorists and Iran."

Both the conservative Bolton and the liberal Engel, in their separate interviews with The Hill, called Obama's appointment a show of "weakness."

Now the White House has to get serious about the fresh potential for violence in the region, Bolton said.

"Based on their record in every other diplomatic arena we've seen, they'll ask for negotiations between Hezbollah and Hariri and what's left of his coalition," he predicted. "But as long as Hezbollah remains an armed terrorist group, you're not going to have a functioning democracy in Lebanon."

Engel said the Obama administration needs to reach out to its strongest ally in the region, particularly as Arab countries can exploit feuds between the U.S. and Israel.

"It's very important that the U.S. not nitpick Israel to death with settlements and other things we seem to find to put pressure on Israel," Engel said. "I don't hear the same kind of criticism of the Palestinians."

Congress needs to show support for Israel right now and press the White House to "take a strong hand with Israel," he added.

And while lawmakers have been chiding each other to watch their rhetoric on Capitol Hill, Engel cautioned the administration to watch its own rhetoric in dealing with the Lebanon crisis and Israel.

"The president and the secretary of State, they have to be very careful in what they say and convey," he said.