WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Tuesday that supporting Syrian refugees as close to their home as possible is the best way to help them.
Trump commented during an appearance with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose country is burdened by an influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and who is counting on continued U.S. assistance to help manage that burden.
During Hariri's first visit to the Trump White House, the leaders also pledged continued solidary against terrorism from the Islamic State group and other militant groups.
"Our approach supporting the humanitarian needs of displaced Syrian citizens as close to their home country as possible is the best way to help most people," said Trump, standing alongside Hariri in the Rose Garden after their talks.
The U.S. has provided billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to help supply displaced and other Syrians with clean water, food, shelter and health care since the civil war broke out in early 2011.
Hariri said Syrian refugees account for about 1.5 million, or one quarter, of Lebanon's population of about 6 million people. The prime minister was expected to seek additional U.S. assistance to cope with the refugee influx.
In brief remarks to open one of their meetings, Hariri said he hoped the anti-terrorism partnership between the U.S. and Lebanon would continue until all terrorists are defeated.
"We will do that," replied Trump, who also praised the Lebanese army for keeping IS and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold in the country. "Ultimately you will win ... we have great confidence in you."
Continued U.S. support for the Lebanese military, financial assistance for Syrian refugees and U.S. plans to tighten sanctions on the militant group Hezbollah were the key items on Hariri's agenda going into the meeting with Trump.
The Lebanese army in recent years has been battling Islamic extremists near its border with Syria and the country has suffered recurrent bouts of insecurity and spillover from the civil war raging next door.
U.S. security assistance for the Lebanese army has exceeded $1 billion in the past decade, but concern is mounting that the aid could be cut under Trump's plan to slash the State Department budget.
But Hariri has a tough balancing act. Potentially embarrassing for him is the current offensive to clear Sunni militants along the Lebanon-Syria border, which is being spearheaded by Hezbollah and the Syrian army, with the Lebanese military serving largely as a bystander.
Trump has slammed the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and Congress recently introduced legislation to impose stiffer sanctions on the powerful group. Hariri, whose fragile governing coalition includes members of Hezbollah, is worried that U.S. efforts to widen sanctions on Hezbollah could negatively impact the banking industry in Lebanon.
At the same time, he has warned that Lebanon is close to a breaking point due to the strain of hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees.
When asked, Trump declined to offer a position on possible tighter sanctions against Hezbollah, but U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took a hard line against the group on Tuesday. Haley urged the U.N. Security Council to acknowledge that Hezbollah — which it has not even named in recent resolutions — "is a destructive terrorist force" and "a major obstacle to peace" that is "dedicated to the destruction of Israel."
She said the council must get serious about enforcing its resolutions that have been routinely violated by Hezbollah and its backer Iran, including many calling on the militant group to disarm.
Haley said the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon must also do "much more" to help prevent another conflict, starting by acknowledging "illegal weapons that Hezbollah parades in front of the media."
"The American people sympathize with the challenges facing the Lebanese people," Haley said. "We will continue to support them as they combat ISIS and host over a million Syrian refugees."
But she warned that the dangers Hezbollah poses "are getting larger, not smaller" and it's time to acknowledge this and get serious about enforcing U.N. resolutions.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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