|Date: Oct 7, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|U.S. sanctions now likely to target Hezbollah’s allies|
|Joseph Haboush| The Daily Star|
VIRGINIA: The United States has exhausted sanctions on the top cadre of Hezbollah as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, but political sources in Washington say that this is “only the beginning.”
The targeting of Hezbollah officials and supporters reached its height earlier this year when two of the group’s MPs - Amin Sharri and Mohammad Raad - were sanctioned. Now the attention is turning toward supporters and allies of the Iranian proxy. Media reports have surfaced about sanctions against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri of the Amal Movement, Hezbollah’s Shiite ally, and members of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.
However, according to one source, the U.S. will target members of the FPM before Berri. “Berri is their [U.S.] channel to Hezbollah and they will not cut him off. What they may do is hit him in his pocket, with sanctions against his wife or her children,” the source said.
Earlier this year, reports emerged that Berri was going to be added to the sanctions list. The speaker quickly dispatched a delegation to Washington in response.
Another source says that this was an intentional media leak by members of the U.S. State Department, frustrated after a visit Berri made to Iraq in April, during which he met with top Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Berri congratulated Sistani for defeating terrorism and said that Sistani was “trying to unite Iraq.”
The speaker was not sanctioned, but there were no denials that his name was placed on a list and that the measures had simply not been activated. And, while Berri himself appears to have been spared, those close to him may not be.
The Free Patriotic Movement, is another story.
Last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker came to Beirut with the message that sanctions would continue and would spread to any supporters of Hezbollah, regardless of their religion or sect. This was an apparent reference to the FPM, which published a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah in 2006.
FPM leader and Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, is another name that has been thrown in the mix to be potentially sanctioned.
However, sources in Washington are unsure as to how effective this move would be, given that it would cut off arguably the biggest Christian party in the country.
Bassil responded to this in a number of interviews throughout a weekslong trip to the United States in late September. The foreign minister, however, is treading a fine line between his alliance with Hezbollah and ensuring that he does not cross the boundary and sever ties with Washington.
Bassil did not meet with any U.S. officials during his recent visit to the U.S., and his inner circle was frustrated with the “cold shoulder” he received, according to a former State Department official.
“The economic sanctions will increase as [they are] the only tool, other than military action, being used in the maximum pressure campaign on Iran, and military action, right now, is out of the question,” the former official said.
A senior Foreign Ministry source says that sanctioning Bassil would be a mistake, considering that Bassil is implementing a policy of dissociation and not siding with any one axis against another.
“If this happens, Lebanon will make a move in response,” the source said. Asked what this might entail, the source said it would be announced if the sanctions took place. “We will not just sit here and be happy that sanctions are being placed on our foreign minister. We will respond.”
Local TV channel MTV reported Sunday that MP Cesar Abi Khalil was denied a visa to the U.S. recently. When asked about the news by The Daily Star, Abi Khalil shared a picture of a visa issued in 2017 and valid until 2022.
Back in Washington, the first political source referred to here said that as long as the current administration is in power, the sanctions will continue. The source said that President Michel Aoun’s inner circle, alluding to Bassil and FPM officials, will feel the noose tighten around them now, because the top political and financial supporters of Hezbollah have been targeted.
The source said, “There are a few names left, but the main ones have been sanctioned and the remaining businessmen have been hesitant ever since Kassem Tajeddine was arrested and extradited to the United States.” Tajeddine was arrested in Morocco and extradited in 2017 for allegedly financing Hezbollah.
“This is the just the beginning and a new round of sanctions is coming soon,” the source added.