Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman met in Washington Monday with Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed Tuesday.
Bassil belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a member of the March 8 alliance which includes Hezbollah – a designated FTO – and which controls a majority in the Lebanese cabinet. That government was formed in June 2011, months after maneuvering by the Shi’ite terrorist group resulted in the ousting of the U.S.-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri.
At the time, the Obama administration said it would wait to see how the Hezbollah-aligned government operates and “judge it by its actions.”
Nuland said Tuesday that Sherman and Bassil had discussed issues in the region, including the crisis in Syria and maritime energy issues. (The discovery of natural gas fields in the Mediterranean has triggered disputes involving Lebanon and Israel, as well as Turkey and Cyprus.)
Sherman also “raised our ongoing concern about Hezbollah’s actions, including its support for the Syrian regime, its role as a terrorist organization and a proxy for Iran, and its criminal activities in the international drug trade and money laundering,” she added.
Nuland did not say how Bassil responded.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed the Sherman-Bassil meeting, describing the Lebanese minister as “an open supporter of the Assad regime and the violent extremist group Hezbollah.”
“The fact that one the State Department’s highest ranking officials met with Bassil – one of Hezbollah’s most stalwart allies – is beyond indefensible,” she said in a statement. “A supporter of Assad and Hezbollah has no place meeting with U.S. officials.
“The administration chooses to meet with the likes of Bassil while giving the cold shoulder to our closest ally, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Ros-Lehtinen’s added, referring to the fact President Obama did not meet with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last week. The Israeli leader had reportedly specifically requested a meeting.
Asked about the lawmaker’s criticism, Nuland pointed out that Bassil is energy minister: “We’ve talk to members of the coalition, and we have to work with a sitting minister if we want to work on these kinds of problems,” she said.
As for Ros-Lehtinen’s point about Bassil’s Hezbollah ties, Nuland said “the degree to which he has contacts with Hezbollah, he can express the concerns and be a good transmitter for the kinds of concerns that I just outlined.”
An article on the FPM website Wednesday reacted dismissively to Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks, saying it could obviously not be viewed outside of the context of the U.S. election campaign.
Criticism was not limited to Republicans in the U.S., however. Two Lebanese opposition parties also were unhappy about Bassil’s trip.
Former Prime Minister Hariri’s mainly Sunni Future Movement and an allied Christian party, the Lebanese Forces, called the visit “provocative,” Lebanon’s Daily Star reported.
“We warn of the serious implications [of the visit] since the Free Patriotic Movement is an ally of Hezbollah and the Syrian-Iranian axis,” the two parties said in a joint statement.
“The FPM which Bassil represents and which claims loyalty to the homeland and calls for reform and change as well as [claiming to] safeguard the interests of Christian presence in the Levant, is a tool in the hands of Hezbollah which is dragging Lebanon into regional and international conflicts,” they added.
Hezbollah, which was established with Tehran’s support soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution, has been designated an FTO since 1997. Before al-Qaeda’s attack on 9/11, the U.S. government held the Lebanese group responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization.
The State Department describes it as “the most technically-capable terrorist group in the world.”
FTO designation makes it unlawful for any U.S. citizen to knowingly provide a group with “material support or resources.” FTO members or representatives are also inadmissible to the United States.
According to the State Department, designation also has other effects. Among them, designation “signals to other governments our concern about named organizations,” “heightens public awareness and knowledge of terrorist organizations” and “stigmatizes and isolates designated terrorist organizations internationally.”
FPM leader Michel Aoun, an ethnic Christian, is a former military chief who has sided with Hezbollah – an alliance that helps the Shi’ite group in its efforts to present a more moderate, non-sectarian face. Bassil is a senior member of the FPM, as well as Aoun’s son-in-law.
Sherman’s meeting with Bassil came on the same day as Lebanese security officials reported the death of a Hezbollah commander and several fighters inside Syria. The Associated Press said a Hezbollah newspaper reported that the commander, Ali Hussein Nassif, had been killed “while performing his jihadi duties.”
The U.S. last August added Hezbollah to a list of groups sanctioned for their ties to the Assad regime. Regional experts say the downfall of the Syrian leader would hit his Hezbollah ally hard.