by: Makram Rabah
Last week the US Treasury issued a new list of names designating three members of Hezbollah under Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism: Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc MP Muhammad Hasan Ra’d, and Beirut MP Amin Sherri.
To many, these sanctions are the latest measure in the Trump administration’s attempts to curb Iran’s ability to supply its militias across the region. However, a closer look at the targets of the latest sanctions reveals that they are as much directed towards the Lebanese state as they are towards Iran’s proxy in the Levant.
The US Treasury issued the sanctions alongside a statement warning the Lebanese government of the need to distance itself from Hezbollah, which “threatens the economic stability and security of Lebanon and the wider region, all at a cost to the Lebanese people.” According to the statement, “Hezbollah uses its operatives in Lebanon’s Parliament to manipulate institutions in support of the terrorist group’s financial and security interests, and to bolster Iran’s malign activities.”
These sanctions confirm that Hezbollah’s military wing and political wing are one and the same: despite what some European countries argue, to distinguish between the two when it comes to sanctions is delusional. Ra’d, one of the newly sanctioned Hezbollah members, confirmed the lack of distinction in his own words, quoted by the US sanctions announcement: “Hezbollah is a military resistance party … There is no separation between politics and resistance.”
The US has been trying to convince the international community, especially its European allies, that they should not deal with Hezbollah as a political entity distinct from its terrorist military wing. While the US strives to isolate Hezbollah, the Lebanese government has shown little will to follow. Hezbollah holds three cabinet positions and has 12 seats in parliament. Following the 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has repeatedly defended Hezbollah as a part of the Lebanese government. Similarly, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has refused to move to dislodge Hezbollah from government or even block them from holding key cabinet portfolios.
The choice of Ra’d, Sherri and Safa is therefore no coincidence: the Trump administration has chosen these three specifically because they embody how Hezbollah has taken advantage of the Lebanese state to pursue its aims.
By sanctioning Muhammad Hasan Ra’d, the leader of Hezbollah’s “Loyalty to the Resistance” bloc in Parliament, the US is cautioning the Lebanese Parliament and the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Berri is the leader of Amal, Hezbollah’s main Shiite ally, and uses his position to promote their agenda. Sanctioning Ra’d, who was elected to Hezbollah’s Shura Council in 2009 and has close ties to Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, sends a message that membership of the Lebanese Parliament will not provide Hezbollah or its allies with political and financial cover. Likewise, it warns the Lebanese parliament that its members can and will be targeted with sanctions.
The choice of Amin Sherri, a Hezbollah MP for the Beirut II constituency, confirms the US government’s willingness to protect the Lebanese banking sector against Hezbollah pressure. Sherri has been accused of threatening Lebanese banks for carrying out the measures imposed by the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, passed by the US Congress in 2018. Sanctioning Sherri sends a message to Lebanese government officials and banks: The US will punish any officials who fail to enforce the legal sanctions, and will support Lebanese banks against Hezbollah.
The third on the list is Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah’s highest public security chief as head of the Liaison and Coordination Unit. Safa’s role is to liaise with other political parties and the various security agencies of the Lebanese state, especially the Lebanese Army. As a result of sanctions, Safa will no longer be able to publicly visit any of the Lebanese heads of security, especially those whose agencies are on the receiving end of financial aid and training from the US government. Therefore, by neutralizing Safa’s ability to work with the Lebanese army, the US sanctions force the Lebanese state to acknowledge that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and not a legitimate part of the Lebanese security apparatus.
These sanctions are aimed at pressuring the Lebanese government into pushing back against Iranian hegemony and asserting its sovereignty. However, the Lebanese state’s response to these recent sanctions has been below par, as it continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the stakes at hand. Prime Minister Hariri simply gave a somewhat myopic remark that such sanctions will not impede the work of his cabinet, a position which was also shared by President Aoun and Speaker Berri, with the latter branding the sanctions an “assault on all of Lebanon.”
The sanctions are therefore a call to action aimed at the Lebanese state. By targeting Hezbollah operatives who have interacted closely with the Lebanese parliament, army, and financial sector, they highlight the state’s failure to recognize the threat posed by ignoring Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975. He tweets @makramrabah.