Ties with Hezbollah put Berri in difficult position
Beirut - In the summer of 1985, the current speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, then a powerful militia leader in the Lebanese civil war, helped negotiate the release of hostages taken during the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
The hijackers were two Lebanese Shias, allegedly working for Hezbollah, who demanded the release of 700 Lebanese held in Israeli jails. Berri’s mediation helped end the crisis — as he has often boasted — putting him on favourable terms with the United States, despite his well-known connections to Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah.
Now reports indicate that the United States has been considering sanctioning Berri for his ties to Hezbollah. The rumours spread after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Beirut, during which he called on the Lebanese state to end its support for Hezbollah, threatening to sanction individuals who fail to comply.
Two of Berri’s allies headed to the United States, ostensibly for meetings at the World Bank. However, they were to meet with US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Marshall Billingslea and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield.
Berri flew to Baghdad, where he met with two Shia heavyweights — Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who, like him, were delicately allied both to the United States and Iran.
Coming on the heels of the Pompeo visit, it seemed like a message from the Lebanese speaker. He was trying to say: “Don’t even think of sanctioning people like us. We hold the keys of stability — and chaos — in the Middle East.”
Leaders who can stabilise the region can also destabilise it, after all. It is these kinds of leaders who the United States ought to promote and engage, providing the Trump administration with a back channel through which it can pass messages to Hezbollah and Iran.
For 40 long years, this had been the job of the Syrians, who had cordial relations with the international community and with notorious non-state players such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Syria can no longer play that role, putting Berri at centre stage to play the go-between.
The channel is two ways, of course. Berri has spoken on Hezbollah’s behalf with the United States, saying Lebanon was determined to go ahead with drilling projects in disputed territorial waters that Israel claims are its property. “We won’t give up a drop of water to Israel,” he boomed from Baghdad.
When a Kuwaiti newspaper ran a report saying that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was expecting a war with Israel and that he might be killed very soon, Berri’s New TV was quick to deny the allegations, side-by-side with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.
“I don’t think the US is going to sanction Berri,” said Nicholas Blanford, a long-time correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Beirut and contributor to The Arab Weekly. “Although it is possible that some people close to the speaker could be blacklisted, especially if they have some form of financial dealings with Hezbollah.”
Berri has been an enigmatic player in the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance. A lawyer turned politician then militiaman then statesman, he has brilliantly maintained cordial ties with all regional and international players in the Middle East.
It was from Berri’s Amal Movement that Hezbollah emerged in 1982 when defectors accused him of being too soft on the Israeli occupation of Beirut. One of them was 22-year-old Nasrallah, who now calls Berri “our big brother.”
One year later, Berri played a monumental role in destroying the Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement. He called on the Lebanese Army to rebel against the treaty, coining it an agreement of “humiliation and shame.”
Berri supported the United States after 9/11 but refused to endorse its 2003 war on Iraq. He was a long-time friend and ally of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, fighting on the same front lines during the civil war, and a public supporter of Hamas and its former leader Khaled Meshaal.
Despite his well-known connections to such figures and to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the United States considered Berri a voice of reason in Lebanon and beyond.
He was good at “carrying messages,” said Blanford, who added: “I suspect the US, for now, prefers to use the speculated threat of sanctions against Berri as a sword of Damocles to elicit good behaviour.”
During the civil war, Berri helped in the release of US hostages, including Terry Anderson, Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press, and David Dodge, president of the American University of Beirut, abducted by Shia militias.
Because of this role that Berri carefully crafted out for himself, the United States has maintained warm relations with him, since he was first elected as speaker — with joint blessing from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria — in 1992.
All three states still refuse to see him go.