CAIRO - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Hezbollah's growing arsenal and its role in regional conflicts threatens Lebanon's security. Tillerson, on tour of the Middle East, spoke in Beirut where he met with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Tillerson's visit to Lebanon came amid simmering regional tensions over the conflict in Syria, along with a territorial dispute with Israel over both its land and sea borders. Hezbollah's role in Lebanese politics, as well as its participation in the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen were key topics of discussion.
Tillerson says that the U.S. has considered Hezbollah a "terrorist organization" for over 20 years and stressed that he had discussed with Lebanon's top leaders the need for the group to withdraw its forces from Syria, saying that its "entanglement in regional conflicts threatens Lebanon's security," in addition to having "destabilizing effects in the region.
"The United States has considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization for more than two decades now. We neither see, nor do we accept any distinction between its political and its military arms,"said Tillerson. "It is unacceptable for a militia like Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government. The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese armed forces... Their presence in Syria has perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime."
Tillerson stressed that he had urged Lebanese leaders to "dissociate (the country) from foreign conflicts," adding that the international community "expects all parties... including Hezbollah (to) cease its activities abroad to reduce tensions in the conflict."
Addressing the dispute between Lebanon and Israel over offshore natural gas reserves, Tillerson struck a conciliatory note, saying that the U.S. had not tried to pressure either side into accepting an agreement, but just wanted to "break the stalemate":
"This is an extremely important issue to Lebanon,"said Tillerson. "It's important to Israel, as well, to come to some agreement, so that private companies can go to work offshore and determine what in fact might be available in terms of natural resource development and how to get started."
Secretary Tillerson downplayed reports in the Lebanese media about the U.S. pressuring Beirut into giving up part of its territorial waters to Israel, insisting that the U.S. had "asked no one to give up anything, (but is) looking for a solution."
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri responded that he had explored "new ideas" with Secretary Tillerson to resolve the dispute with Israel and move forward with the exploration process.
"What is ours is ours and what is Israel's is Israel's,"said Hariri. "I think we're trying to find solutions that will be fair to us and fair to everyone.....There are some new ideas and I think we are going to exploit those ideas to finally explore for oil and gas."
Tillerson insisted that the U.S. was not in a position to guarantee Lebanon's border with Israel, but rather to help to find "a final border agreement along the Blue Line" separating the two countries.
"Let's get the border agreed first and then people can think about it if they need a security wall or not at that point,"said Tillerson. "But we're hopeful that the current talks around establishing an agreed upon border will yield a final resolution of that. We think it would be very, very important and useful to lowering the tensions along the border, if the two sides could agree to that."
Tillerson, who is ending his regional tour in Turkey, said that country "is still an important NATO ally" and that "so many aspects of (the U.S.') relationship (with Ankara) are positive." Both countries' "endpoint objectives," he insisted, "are to defeat ISIS and terrorism" and find an "end to the conflict in Syria." He added that the U.S. had "not given any heavy weapons," to its Kurdish YPG militia ally, and so "there is nothing to take back."