US sanctions further complicate Lebanon’s political deadlock

“More sanctions are forthcoming. The Trump Administration wants to tighten the noose on those who support Hezbollah,” says political analyst Johnny Munayer.
Friday 20/11/2020
Lebanese President Michel Aoun attends the Paris Peace Forum via video-conference at the presidential palace, November 12. (DPA)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun attends the Paris Peace Forum via video-conference at the presidential palace, November 12. (DPA)

Beirut - A long-awaited government capable of introducing reforms and unblocking badly needed foreign aid to shore up Lebanon’s collapsing economy appears to be more unlikely than ever almost one month after Saad Hariri was asked to form it.

The spectre of US sanctions targeting more high-ranking Lebanese officials over corruption and engagement with Iran-backed Hezbollah is unlikely to break the political deadlock or speed up the government formation process, according to political observers and analysts.

“So far there is no indication that the US sanctions are affecting the political stalemate. The French actually believe that the sanctions are backlashing and further complicating the situation,” a political source told The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity.

The US has recently blacklisted ex-ministers Gebran Bassil, head of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, Ali Hassan Khalil, an advisor to Amal Movement chief, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Youssef Fenianos from the Christian Marada Party.

“Blacklisting them did not scare Hezbollah’s allies, but had an opposite effect. It actually hardened the stance of their parties.  It made President Aoun even bolder on naming the Christian ministers in the next cabinet and Berri more resolute to name the next finance minister,” the source said.

Despite reported French advice to slow down or postpone the sanctions on Lebanon’s politicians, Washington is set to include more names on its blacklist.

“More sanctions are forthcoming. The Trump Administration wants to tighten the noose on those who support Hezbollah, including the wealthy Shia and non-Shia supporters and make it difficult for any future administration to reverse the sanctions or lighten them,” political analyst Johnny Munayer said, quoting informed political sources.

“The new blacklist will be more balanced and diversified in the sense that it would include individuals from different political parties and sects, not only those in the pro-Hezbollah camp, to make it look non-partisan. Some are close to Saad Hariri and to (Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party) Walid Jumblat,” Munayer said.

Munayer maintained that additional sanctions are unlikely to speed up the government’s formation.

“For one, Hezbollah sees no interest in facilitating a reformist government while Trump’s outgoing administration is set on expanding the blacklist and two; Trump is only interested in increasing pressure on Iran and its proxies. So neither side is keen on having a functioning government in Lebanon for the time being,” Munayer said.

“I don’t see a new government formed anytime soon or at least not before the end of January. The French initiative is in the meantime suspended for the next couple of months until a new administration enters the White House,” he added.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun meets with Patrick Durel, President Emmanuel Macron’s advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon November 12, 2020. (AFP)
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun meets with Patrick Durel, President Emmanuel Macron’s advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon November 12, 2020. (AFP)

France’s initiative, launched during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut following the devastating August 4 blast at Beirut port, calls for forming a government of non-partisan specialists focused on carrying out urgent financial, economic, judicial and administrative reforms.

Based on the initiative, Lebanese political parties will not participate in the government for a few months until the reforms are implemented.

France also pledged to organise two Lebanon-related conferences, one on reconstruction aid and the second to build international support for the reform agenda in Lebanon. All of these plans might fail if the government is not formed or if Lebanon’s political crisis deepens.

While there is speculation that Lebanon could fade from the international community’s interest, the French will not let down its former protectorate, according to a source who asked not to be named.

“There is a general understanding that Lebanon’s total collapse will have big fallouts in the region and would cause chaos,” the source said.

“Under the present status quo France will scrap plans to hold a donor conference for assisting Lebanon because it is conditioned on having a government that would introduce reforms. But I believe the humanitarian assistance for rebuilding the areas damaged by the port explosion will go through with the help of the United Nations and the World Bank,” the source added.

The source also played down the possibility of the US alleviating sanctions after Trump’s departure.

“Washington’s approach on sanctioning Lebanese officials won’t be affected, because it is a matter about which there is full agreement between Democrats and Republicans. The best one can hope for is that sanctions might slow down depending on political developments,” the source said.