Hezbollah’s Role in Lebanese Gov’t Complicates Efforts to Pressure it Over Syria Crackdown

By Patrick Goodenough | August 13, 2012 | 3:10 PM EDT

Hezbollah supporters wave Syrian and Hezbollah flags and pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a rally in Beirut. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Treasury Department’s says its decision to designate Hezbollah for supporting the Assad regime’s violent crackdown in Syria aims to encourage other countries to take steps to add to the pressure on the group, but Hezbollah’s key role in the Lebanese government – a recipient of U.S. foreign assistance – continues to complicate the situation.

The Obama administration requested more than $200 million in foreign assistance to Lebanon in fiscal year 2012, including military financing and training, and economic support funds.

In a country long fractured along sectarian lines, Hezbollah and its allies control 16 of the 30 seats in the Lebanese cabinet.

In recent years lawmakers attempted to block American taxpayers’ money from going to Lebanon under those circumstances, but the administration argued forcefully that military and economic aid to Lebanon was in the U.S. national interest and would not benefit Hezbollah.

(A provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law last December does require $100 million in foreign military financing, appropriated in FY2012 for the Lebanese Armed Forces, to be withheld if they fall under the control of a foreign terrorist organization.)

Now, Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian bloodshed, highlighted by the Treasury Department and State Department on Friday, again raises awkward questions about how authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere can exert pressure on an organization that is both one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in history, and a political party in government.

The U.S., Israel, Canada and the Netherlands list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization while Britain – drawing a distinction between the group’s various activities – lists its “armed wing.”

Just weeks ago, European Union officials told Israel that the E.U. remained divided over the issue, given the fact Hezbollah engages in both political and “armed wing” activities. The E.U. would only consider listing the Shi’ite group as a terrorist organization “should there be tangible evidence of Hezbollah engaging in acts of terrorism.”

The Treasury Department’s action on Friday does not introduce new sanctions – it is already prohibited for any U.S. citizen to do business with the group – but officials said that was not the aim.

Instead, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen told a phone briefing, the move “serves the very, very important purpose of making clear to parties around the world – both domestically and internationally – the true nature of Hezbollah’s activities.”

“We have many partners in the international community who share the revulsion about what is going on in Syria,” State Department coordinator for counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin said during the same briefing. “We believe that if they are presented with this information – and we will, of course, be following up diplomatically – that they may want to take additional measures.

“And over the long term, that will limit the amount of space that Hezbollah has to operate. It will put the group in a more difficult situation, and, I think, will make them think long and hard before they continue this campaign in which the Syrian people are being brutalized,” he continued.

An image provided by Shaam News Network and unverified by AP shows buildings destroyed by Syrian army shelling in Homs on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network)

“So we do see very concrete benefits coming from this designation. Whether they will be in the area of financial sanctions or not remains to be seen, but in terms of casting a bright light on what the group is doing, I think that’s vitally important.”

In the Treasury statement and during the briefing the officials accused Hezbollah of providing training, advice and logistical support, in conjunction with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force, to the Assad regime’s “increasingly ruthless efforts to fight against the opposition.”

Cohen said Hezbollah was repaying its debt to a regime that has provided it with support, weapons and funding for many years.

“Long after the Assad regime is gone, the people of Syria and the entire global community will remember that Hezbollah, and its patron Iran, contributed to the regime’s murder of countless innocent Syrians,” he said.

The Qods Force and its head, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, were similarly designated in May 2011 for their role in Syria.

Cohen reminded the briefing of Hezbollah’s involvement in terrorism going back to 1983, when more than 300 people, most of them Americans, were killed in a series of suicide bombings in Beirut with targets including the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks.

“Before al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other terrorist group,” he said. “Hezbollah started out carrying out bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon but quickly expanded its violent campaign on to a global stage, carrying out and supporting terrorist attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East.”

Benjamin warned of the possibility of more attacks.

“Our assessment is that Hezbollah and Iran will both continue to maintain a heightened level of terrorist activity in operations in the near future, and we assess that Hezbollah could attack in Europe or elsewhere at any time with little or no warning,” he said.

Benjamin said in reply to a question that the administration did “not have any information on any operational targeting or anything like that in the U.S.  But that said, it’s a very ambitious group with global reach.”

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut on Friday issued a warning to American citizens about an increased possibility of attacks in Lebanon, including kidnappings and “U.S. citizens being the target of terrorist attacks.” The mission said U.S. personnel remained under strict travel restrictions.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow