BEIRUT — Hezbollah and its allies rose to a position of unprecedented dominance in Lebanon's government Monday, giving its patrons Syria and Iran greater sway in the Middle East.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a new Cabinet dominated by the militant group and its allies after the country has operated for five months without a functioning government. The move caps Hezbollah's steady rise over decades from resistance group against Israel to Lebanon's most powerful military and political force.
Opponents of Hezbollah — which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization — say having it in control of Lebanon's government could lead to international isolation. The group's most ardent supporters are Iran and Syria, which dominated Lebanon for 29 years.
The new government opens the door for renewed Syrian influence in Lebanon as the Syrian leadership is struggling at home. It's a remarkable turnaround from 2005, when fallout from the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led to massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon. The protests, dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," drove tens of thousands of Syrian troops out of Lebanon and ended decades of Syrian domination over its smaller neighbor.
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Hezbollah's ascendancy is a setback for the United States, which has provided Lebanon with $720 million in military aid since 2006 and has tried in vain to move the country firmly into a Western sphere and end Iranian and Syrian influence. It also underscores Iran's growing influence in the region as Washington's is falling.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for an immediate cutoff of U.S. funds to the new government "as long as any violent extremist group designated by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations participates in it."
"For years, members of Congress warned that it was unwise to fund a Lebanese government in which Hezbollah participated. It was clear that Hezbollah's influence was growing, and that the executive branch had no long-term strategy to deal with that reality, and no contingency plan to stop U.S. aid from falling into the wrong hands," the Florida Republican said in a statement.
A Hezbollah-led government will likely raise tensions with Israel, which fought a devastating 34-day war against the Shiite militants in 2006 that left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead. Lebanon, torn apart by decades of civil war and deep sectarian divides, has had several major military conflicts with neighboring Israel.