Pompeo warns against Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon
PARIS – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday warned France that its efforts to resolve the crisis in Lebanon would be in vain without immediately tackling the issue of Iran-backed Hezbollah’s weaponry.
French President Emmanuel Macron has spearheaded international efforts to set Lebanon on a new course after decades of corrupt rule led to its deepest crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
But unlike Washington, which deems the heavily armed and politically powerful movement a terrorist group, Paris says its elected arm has a legitimate political role.
The United States last week expanded its sanctions related to Lebanon by blacklisting two former government ministers it accused of enabling Hezbollah. That has raised questions as to how much the US and France are coordinating as Lebanon’s factional rivalries struggle to form a new government.
“The United States has assumed its responsibility and we will stop Iran buying Chinese tanks and Russian air defence systems and then selling weapons to Hezbollah (and) torpedoing President Macron’s efforts in Lebanon,” Pompeo told France Inter radio.
“You can’t allow Iran to have more money, power and arms and at same time try to disconnect Hezbollah from the disasters it provoked in Lebanon.”
Washington’s concerns about the role of Hezbollah and the Shia group’s connection with Iran are not new. During a visit to Beirut in March 2019, Pompeo’s seven-minute media address was dominated by his country’s preoccupation with Hezbollah and, in effect, its patron Iran.
The top US diplomat minced no words at the time, declaring the intentions of President Donald Trump’s administration to take on Hezbollah for its “criminal activities and terrorist network,” albeit by “peaceful means.”
Trump has reversed his predecessor Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, abandoning the much-hailed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposing sanctions. The US has since imposed additional sanctions on Hezbollah as well.
In 2018, the US designated Hezbollah as a transnational crime threat, alleging that the group’s network spans across West Africa and South America and is involved in money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism.
Hezbollah, which has a parliamentary majority, and its Shia ally Amal held ministerial posts in the last government, including the health and finance ministries.
On September 1, Macron said, during a visit a month after a devastating Beirut port blast, that Lebanese politicians agreed to form a cabinet by September 15, an ambitious timeline given it usually takes months.
French officials have said the priority is to put in place a government that could implement reforms quickly, but the matter of Hezbollah’s weapons was not an immediate issue.
French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported in August that Macron had met Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, and told him that the group should disassociate itself from Iran and remove its forces from neighbouring Syria.
The French presidency did not deny the meeting, which would be a first between a French leader and a member of the group.
“It’s a doubled-edged sword for Macron. Hezbollah is part of the very governance system that needs changing and I’m not sure you can deal with political Hezbollah without handling armed Hezbollah,” said a French diplomatic source.
Over the last decade, Hezbollah has grown from being an Iranian proxy inside Lebanon to a regional armed force. It has sent fighters in the thousands to the Syrian war. Those who survived have returned battle-hardened.
The group has also aided Shia militias in Iraq and backed the Houthi militias in Yemen. Hezbollah has been forming a bloc against Israel in south Lebanon but now it is also present in southern Syria in the part of Golan Heights still under Syrian control.
The group has also gained power politically and dominated Lebanese affairs, wielding a significant influence on almost all matters of the state.