US tightens pressures on Hezbollah, keeps Lebanon on edge
During his recent visit to Beirut, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued clear messages related to Hezbollah, the party that has dominated to a large extent decision making in Lebanon.
Pompeo warned that the United States would not hesitate to take punitive measures against Lebanese parties coordinating with Hezbollah. Washington is working on steps that should be issued in compliance with recent US government decisions that placed Hezbollah on its list of “criminal organisations.”
After Pompeo left, a Lebanese parliamentary delegation headed to Washington to meet with the members of Congress and US Treasury officials to clarify the Lebanese position and try to mitigate the US measures, particularly concerning finance and bank transfers.
The Lebanese delegation heard clear messages from the assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs about ending border conflicts with Israel, especially because the border issue is linked to offshore gas and oil fields in disputed areas.
The US Treasury Department included the Chams Exchange Company and its owner Kassem Chams on its banned list, accusing him of money laundering operations for Hezbollah and of transferring its drug money. Chams has denied the charges.
The US Treasury decision reflects the continued pace of sanctions and their tightening. Rumours circulated in Beirut about decisions that will touch officials close to certain political leaders with Hezbollah, in addition to decisions placing certain companies and political and business figures on the sanctions list because they are believed by Washington to be involved in financial operations that benefit Hezbollah.
Reports claim that sanctions could be applied to those believed to have been involved in withdrawing Iraqi funds deposited in well-known Lebanese banks during the time of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
Many individuals and organisations are thought to have been involved in the operation and it is believed that nearly $3 billion was withdrawn from three banks under a quasi-official cover. Four parties are said to have split the amount and names of individuals who had deposited the loot in anonymous accounts have come up. Iraqi authorities claim to have no knowledge of this deal.
As the sanctions were being put together, there were US assurances, reportedly conveyed by the Lebanese ambassador in Washington, that there were no planned sanctions against parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, contrary to Arab and Lebanese media reports. The same message was relayed by the Lebanese parliamentary delegation returning from Washington.
However, this does not mean that decisions targeting other individuals and institutions that Washington says are involved in supporting Hezbollah through illegal operations will not be issued.
A member of the Lebanese delegation said the US officials they met with want Lebanon to move from a free-for-all kind of arena to a state of institutions through which the government can control by force of law everything happening in its territory.
US State Department officials warned the delegation about the lack of state control on the border with Syria, which has turned it into a porous zone for smuggling operations.
The US decisions are weighing heavily on political authorities in Lebanon. Washington’s tightening grip on Lebanon is also weighing on Hezbollah. The party’s financial resources have shrunk significantly because of the policy and as a result of sanctions levied against Iran and the profound economic and financial crisis in Lebanon.
Among other things, this crisis exposed the extent of Iran’s domination of Lebanon, as well as what can be called the withdrawal of Arab countries, especially the Gulf countries, from Lebanon compared to what their role was a decade ago.
Lebanon, which is suffering from financial and economic collapse, finds itself facing a series of existential challenges. It is likely the government, which has begun reducing the country’s serious deficit through indirect taxation while avoiding making serious reforms that would necessarily affect Lebanon’s sovereignty, risks being faced with an explosion at the social level.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has pushed a button in this direction by announcing wage reductions for all state employees.
At the same time, the threat of a war between Hezbollah and Israel still stands and may become real if Washington removes the card of the Lebanese-Israeli border dispute from Tehran’s hand either by taking the issue to the United Nations or by pushing for direct tripartite border negotiations among Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus. If it does that, then Tehran will see in that an existential threat to its influence in Lebanon.