Bassil’s presidential ambitions likely dashed by US sanctions

The most that Bassil could aspire to now is to be able to preserve his position as head of the Free Patriotic Movement
Monday 09/11/2020
A file picture of Lebanese politician and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, in Sin-el-fil, Lebanon. REUTERS
A file picture of Lebanese politician and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, in Sin-el-fil, Lebanon. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT - The head of the Free Patriotic Movement and former Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said on Sunday that his refusal to sever ties with Hezbollah was the main reason for imposing US sanctions on him.

On Friday, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Gebran Bassil, for his involvement in corruption and his relationship with Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and a number of Western and Arab countries. His inclusion on the sanctions list constitutes a double blow to the “spoiled son” of Hezbollah’s era, who is aspiring to succeed President Michel Aoun in Baabda Palace. Political analysts believe that, with these US sanctions against him, Bassil has also lost all chances of promoting his political fortunes internationally and that the sanctions would effectively demolish his political ambitions. The most that Bassil could aspire to now is to be able to preserve his position as head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and even this will not be possible in the medium term. These analysts point out that these sanctions will strengthen the position of a minority movement within the party that had always had reservations about Bassil’s policies.

The Lebanese president’s son-in-law tried, at a press conference in the capital Beirut to dismiss the significance of the US sanctions. He said that this “unjust” decision against him came in response to his principled position of defending Hezbollah and rejecting foreign interference in the party’s policies.

Bassil also revealed that before sanctions were imposed on him, President Michel Aoun had informed him that a senior American official had called him and asked him to break the Free Patriotic Movement's relationship with Hezbollah. Bassil added that he was recently informed “by the American ambassador (in Beirut) that four demands must be met, otherwise American sanctions will be imposed ... and the word corruption never came up in the entire conversation.”

He indicated that the first demand was to “immediately sever ties with Hezbollah,” but did not reveal the other demands. According to his version of the facts, the Americans had given him several grace periods to comply with their demands and later abandoned their other demands and “stayed with the demand of severing ties with Hezbollah,” a party backed by Iran.

He added that by rejecting the US request, the sanctions against him were approved, and they turned out to be “related to corruption and hardly mentioned Hezbollah, while they (the Americans) never mentioned this to me before and only told me about Hezbollah.”

Basil had indicated that the US administration had tried before to bribe him in exchange for giving up his ties with Hezbollah, but “my natural quick reaction was that things do not work this way with me and that I reject the whole issue ... We are friends and not agents,” as he put it.

Bassil described the sanctions against him as a “crime” and said that he would hire a law firm to request before the US judiciary the “annulment of the decision” and “file for moral and material compensation.”

It had long been expected that Washington would include the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement on its sanctions list, which already includes the political aide of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Ali Hassan Khalil, because of his cooperation with Hezbollah.

Bassil considered that the US request to sever ties with Hezbollah “contradicts a fundamental principle of the movement, which is its refusal to take instructions from any foreign country.”

“We cannot stab any Lebanese for the sake of a foreigner ... and it is not possible to turn against Hezbollah ... We will not walk down the path of isolating any Lebanese component, even if it costs us dearly ... Neither your planes nor your threats, nor your sanctions will work with us,” a defiant Bassil added.

He further pointed out that “the road with the United States has always been difficult, but we are forced to walk it and endure injustice to remain free in our homeland and to protect Lebanon from division and infighting, while insisting that we remain friends of the American people, no matter how unjust their administration is with us.”

The US Treasury Department had stated that Bassil was “responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.” Moreover, an American official accused him of using his influence to delay the formation of a government in Lebanon. He said his political partnership with Hezbollah had allowed the latter to “expand its influence.”

Observers believe that Bassil's attempts to deny any direct involvement in corruption cannot hide the reality of his responsibility in the country’s current acute financial crisis, as the head of a party participating in the governing coalition,and also as a former state official in charge of the energy portfolio.

Observers point out that Bassil monopolised the energy portfolio for years, and during that period there had been no improvements made on that front. Rather, he increased the public debt in Lebanon by about $50 billion due to his reluctance to pursue any feasible project in the electricity sector, whether through the help of the German company Siemens or through Arab funds, particularly the Kuwait Fund.

Observers say that Bassil sought to exploit his partnership with Hezbollah to strengthen his political influence, throwing off all existing balances through his interference in the process of forming a government.

Lebanon is currently suffering from a governmental crisis due to a large extent to the high demands erected by the head of the Free Patriotic Movement in the face of the Prime Minister-designate, the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, including insisting that the Maronite current obtain the crucial third of the ministerial portfolios in addition to maintaining the energy portfolio for his party.

Bassil’s intransigence comes at a time when the country is facing the risk of financial and economic collapse, which is raising serious concerns internally and externally. Observers expect him to stick to his demands and get even closer to Hezbollah in the hope of preserving his weight in Lebanese politics.

“We cannot stab Hezbollah in the back,” he said at his press conference, “and we will not let go (of Hezbollah) under external pressure. If we do that, it would be for internal reasons,” alluding at the same to the existence of several disagreements between his party and Hezbollah, among which are “peace in the region and Israel’s existence.”

Bassil, 50, is one of the people closest to Aoun. He is the current president of the Free Patriotic Movement led by the President of the Republic, and a close ally of Hezbollah under the terms of a memo of understanding between the two parties dating back to 2006.

This is the first time that the United States imposes sanctions on a high-ranking politician who is one of Hezbollah's Christian allies. In September, Washington also imposed sanctions on former minister from the Christian Marada Movement allied with Hezbollah, Youssef Fenianos, and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil of the Shiite Amal Movement headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s most prominent ally in Lebanon.

On Saturday, President Michel Aoun requested the evidence that prompted Washington to impose sanctions on Bassil.

The close relationship between the Aoun and Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah goes back to 2006, when the two parties signed a strategic partnership agreement, known as the Mar Mikhael Agreement. That agreement came during a period of highly sensitive circumstances that Lebanon was going through following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, in which a Hezbollah operative was convicted a few months ago.