US sanctions on Hezbollah to carry long-term impact in Lebanon, Middle East
BEIRUT - A part from its symbolism, the sanctioning of three top Hezbollah officials by the United States carries no immediate or short-term substantial effect, given that none of the blacklisted names travels to the United States or owns property across the Atlantic.
This is just the beginning, however, of where the Trump administration seems to be heading with Iran and its various proxies in the Middle East. If expanded horizontally across the Lebanese political spectrum or vertically within the party itself, it can become quite dangerous — and painful — for all of Lebanon.
For now, the sanctions only limit the financial transactions and travel abilities of MPs Muhammad Raad and Amin Sherri and of Wafiq Safa, who oversees Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit.
US citizens will be unable to meet with them, hire them or do business with them.
Raad, 64, is the most well-known among the three, having held a parliamentary seat since Hezbollah decided to take part in local politics, in parallel with its military programme, in 1992.
Raad serves on the party’s Executive Council and often as a personal representative of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. Raad heads Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament, which includes 13 MPs.
Sherri, 63, is far less known, having served in parliament since 2005. Safa is the most influential, being one of the co-founders of Hezbollah and a long-time friend and confidant of Nasrallah.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the blacklist aims at containing Hezbollah’s “corrupting influence” in Lebanon. He added that the men had “exploited their positions to smuggle illegal goods into Lebanon, pressure Lebanese financial institutions to assist Hezbollah.”
Pompeo has been pushing for such action since his March visit to Beirut. He called on the Lebanese state to end its support for Hezbollah and threatened action against those who refused to comply. Shortly after his departure, it was rumoured that the United States would be sanctioning Hezbollah’s chief ally, Nabih Berri, the long-time speaker of Lebanon’s parliament and a firm ally of Nasrallah.
The mere thought of sanctioning Berri gripped the entire Lebanese political scene, due to his sensitive position as head of the country’s legislative branch and the might of the Shia street that he co-commands with Nasrallah.
Like many Shia politicians in Iraq, Berri has brilliantly managed to remain close both to Iran and the United States, positioning himself as an intermediary and stability guarantor. If he was earmarked for sanctions, then nobody in Lebanon is safe, not even Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who relied on Hezbollah support to reach Baabda Palace three years ago, or Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who appointed two Hezbollah ministers to his government.
What if the Trump administration goes further than Raad, Sherri and Safa, targeting Hezbollah “friends” in the Lebanese chamber? Berri would be first on the list no doubt, perhaps explaining why he snapped: “This is an assault on parliament and on all of Lebanon!”
Or what if it targets Hezbollah cabinet ministers and their allies in the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, putting the entire Lebanese government in jeopardy?
Hezbollah has two members in the Hariri cabinet: Youth and Sports Minister Muhammad Fneish and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mamoud Komati. A third affiliate, who is not an official party member, is Jamal Jabak, the minister of health. If any of them are blacklisted, sanctions would badly affect the sectors in which they work — in Jabak’s case, affecting medicine, hospitals and clinics — in addition to the entire legislative branch.
If Hariri or whoever succeeds him as prime minister tries to force Hezbollah ministers out of office, the cabinet would fall — literarily overnight — becoming “unconstitutional.” Ignoring Hezbollah would be impossible and so would squeezing its members out of office or learning how to live with them, while they are sanctioned.
On a macro-level, the recent US designation sends a message to the international community that there is no such thing as a “military wing” and “political command” for Hezbollah. They are different faces to one entity, claim both the United States and Israel. There are voices in the West who say that civilian members of Hezbollah, such as Raad, Sherri and Safa, who never carried arms but believe in the party’s doctrine, cannot be considered “terrorists.”
Germany is of this view, drawing a clear line between Hezbollah’s political and military wing and, until last March, so was Great Britain. Hariri relies on this argument to explain himself in the United States when asked why Hezbollah has been adequately represented on all his cabinets since 2009.
A third option that ought to be considered is how Hezbollah will react to the US sanctions. What if it drags the entire country into a confrontation with the United States, claiming more sensitive portfolios such as education, for example, economy or electricity, subjecting those sectors to US sanctions as well?
Much of that depends on how far the Trump administration will go in what remains of its tenure and whether it will expand the sanctions list or stop at this stage ahead of the 2020 elections, taking sanctions to a new level if Trump is re-elected president.