American sanctions target major Hezbollah ally in Lebanon

US envoy says Gebran Bassil offered to drop partnership with Shi’ite group, though former FM denies it.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil attends a meeting with Italian counterpart Angelino Alfano in Rome (photo credit: REMO CASILLI/ REUTERS)
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil attends a meeting with Italian counterpart Angelino Alfano in Rome
(photo credit: REMO CASILLI/ REUTERS)
This weekend, Washington imposed sanctions on former Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the country’s largest Christian political bloc and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.
The US is accusing Bassil of corruption, and apparently of ties to Hezbollah.
On Monday, the US ambassador to Lebanon said Bassil had expressed willingness during a recent meeting to end his alliance with the Iran-backed Shi'ite armed movement, although under “certain conditions.”
Yet Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement political party and the Strong Lebanon bloc in parliament, denies this, saying Ambassador Dorothy Shea is trying to “drive a wedge” between his movement and Hezbollah, adding that US policy has failed to break the understandings between the two groups “despite pressure, threats and enticements.”
He adds that no evidence of the alleged corruption was provided and is demanding that such information be handed over to the relevant Lebanese authorities.
The sanctions have frozen his assets in the US, as well as his dollar accounts. Banks and US-based businesses are prohibited from doing business with him. He will also be denied entry to the US and could encounter problems obtaining a Schengen visa to the European Union.
Bassil, 50, was foreign minister from February 2014 to January 2020.
Asaad Bishara, a political analyst who served as an adviser to former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, told The Media Line the US administration had moved from imposing sanctions directly on Hezbollah to taking aim at the organization’s allies, noting that Bassil is not the first and will not be the last.
“These sanctions have surely weakened the organization: Hezbollah and Iran have become isolated regionally and internationally,” Bishara said.
“When a party is recognized as terrorist by the US, this influences a large number of American allies even if they themselves haven’t listed Hezbollah as a terror group – and many of them are preparing to do just that,” he noted.
The US State Department designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1995, and since 2001, Washington has sanctioned more than 100 Lebanese financial institutions, commercial entities and individuals that are linked to the group.
Bishara says the US sanctions imposed on Bassil for alleged corruption are based on a 2012 American law known as the “Magnitsky Act,” which criminalizes those committing corruption outside of the US.
He notes that there has been a range of condemnations against Bassil inside Lebanon for his alleged corruption, but also for allegations that he has been covering up Hezbollah’s activities.
“Notably, the process of corruption in Lebanon is allowed mainly by Hezbollah, as it protects the political class,” Bishara said, alluding to the fact that the Shi’ite group is the only Lebanese group outside the military and police that is allowed to arm itself.
“An American source said that about 20 additional Lebanese will also be listed for sanctions,” he stated, adding his belief that what really hurts Hezbollah is US sanctions on its political allies.
Mohammed Afif, Hezbollah’s spokesperson, declined to comment when reached by The Media Line.
Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program and a former senior official in the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, feels that US and EU sanctions have made it difficult for Hezbollah to use the global financial system.
“The US also aggressively targets foreign fundraising efforts by the group, with some success,” he told The Media Line.
O’Toole says sanctions against Hezbollah are effective, although by themselves, they cannot weaken it to the point of collapse or capitulation. He adds that as with all such efforts, the US needs to engage Lebanon politically and economically to undermine Hezbollah’s “malign influence.”
“The US almost certainly needs to work with Israel to forge a lasting peace in the region, as Hezbollah thrives on violence,” he continued. “And of course, military options need to remain on the table to address specific threats [that] Hezbollah poses.”
It is a difficult problem, and solving it will require many more tools than just sanctions, he said.
Shea, the US ambassador to Lebanon, says Bassil has personally expressed gratitude for the US action “because the US made him see how the relationship with Hezbollah is not conducive for the Free Patriotic Movement.” She has said that some of his key advisers told her they were encouraging him to “separate [himself] from Hezbollah.”
Marwan Iskandar, a Lebanese financial expert and chief economic commentator for Beirut’s An-Nahar daily, told The Media Line there was a contradiction between the ambassador’s statements and those of Bassil.
“I believe the ambassador, who said [Bassil] is willing to let go of the organization if his conditions are met, but she rejected his conditions,” he said.
Iskandar says Bassil claims to be a target of Washington solely because of his relationship with Hezbollah, and not for any corruption, but notes that the politician and others had been sentenced in the US for fraud.
“Not only that, the coming days will reveal Bassil’s involvement in further financial issues,” he stated.
He also explained that US sanctions on Hezbollah have undoubtedly been weakening it regionally and internationally, as they touch upon individuals and companies working with it.
“Lebanon is suffering economically, which is to a certain extent the organization’s fault, as some of the biggest traders in Lebanon are from the Shi’ite sect and have stopped their work – from which 10% of the profit goes to Hezbollah,” Iskandar said.
He added that Hezbollah was now being closely monitored not only by the Americans, but by other parties that do not want to upset Washington.
Additionally, he points out that the recent peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have weakened Hezbollah, as those who support the organization and live in those Gulf countries will come under pressure.
“This has to do big time with the American relations with Arab countries in the context of its sanctions against Hezbollah,” he explained.
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