Beirut, Lebanon – A seven-minute media address by United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday was dominated by his country’s preoccupation with Hezbollah and, in effect, its patron Iran.

Pompeo read out his statement during his visit to Beirut as his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil watched with an unwavering gaze.

The top US diplomat minced no words while declaring the intentions of President Donald Trump’s administration to take on Hezbollah for its “criminal activities and terrorist network” albeit by “peaceful means”. 

Referring to a recent televised speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Pompeo claimed success of US sanctions against the group, saying “Nasrallah begged for contributions”.

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. 

Bassil’s address took on a different tone to Pompeo’s, however, with the foreign minister reaffirming that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organisation, has a large support base and is part of Lebanon’s national unity government. 

Political and military growth

In October, 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.

However, Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow with The Century Foundation and author of a book on Hezbollah, said that while the sanctions made life harder for Hezbollah, they have done nothing to stop its political or military growth. 

“American efforts to weaken and isolate Hezbollah have created myriad practical problems for the organisation but do nothing to accomplish the fundamental United States goal of containing Hezbollah politically and militarily,” Cambanis told Al Jazeera.  

“Terror-listing and sanctions make it difficult for Hezbollah’s non-military operations. They do nothing, however, to reduce Hezbollah’s reach as a military power,” he added. 

Hezbollah has grown from being an Iranian proxy inside Lebanon to a regional armed force over the last decade. It has sent fighters in thousands to the Syrian war. Those who survived have returned battle-hardened. 

The group has also aided Shia militias in Iraq and backed the Houthis 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 dominates the Lebanese parliament. Along with its allies, Hezbollah has over 70 of the 128 parliamentary seats and three ministers in the cabinet.

Preserving unity 

Lebanese politicians, including President Michelle Aoun, base their support for Hezbollah on the need to preserve unity among the different factions represented in Lebanon’s sectarian divisions of power. 

Alain Aoun, an MP with President Aoun and Gebran Basil’s Free Patriotic Movement, told Al Jazeera that while the US was free to limit whatever it deemed to be Hezbollah’s external acts, within Lebanon, Hezbollah was a legitimate part of the society. 

“The US must not take punitive measures against Lebanese people,” said Aoun. “We are Hezbollah’s political allies, as it represents a major Lebanese community, but this does not mean that we know what is happening outside.”

Although many had feared Pompeo would announce further sanctions, he promised that the US would continue to support Lebanese state institutions, including financially. His words were underlaid with veiled warnings that continued reliance on Hezbollah would risk Lebanon’s economic prospects.

“Lebanon faces a choice; bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future,” Pompeo said in his address.

He also reminded the Lebanese people of the $800m the US provided to Lebanon in pecuniary support just last year. “How much has Hezbollah or Iran provided,” asked Pompeo, adding that Iran gives Hezbollah $700m a year.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, he visited Lebanon after Israel, just as President Trump recognised Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.

The Trump administration has already moved its embassy to disputed Jerusalem and is preparing a deal to resolve the conflict with Palestine that will reportedly mirror many of Israel’s demands.

The lasting effect of US policy is yet to be seen. However, Cambanis of The Century Foundation believes the US should adopt a more nuanced approach towards Hezbollah. 

“Sanctions against Hezbollah have already ensued a siege mentality among its followers. This is unlikely to weaken the group and instead give it more control, more supporters.”

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