Commentary by Bart Hesseling – 25 July 2013
On 22 July, the European Union’s 28 foreign ministers unanimously decided to place the ‘military wing’ of the Lebanese Hezbollah on a list of what it considers terrorist organizations, to loud cheers from Washington and Tel Aviv. It is a classic case of coherent policy giving way to political expediency. Beyond the political posturing, it doesn’t help to improve the situation in the countries directly affected, Syria and Lebanon.
On the list, Hezbollah joins a variety of organizations. Many are Palestinian groups (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Abu Nidal Organization, Islamic Jihad). Others include al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah, the Tamil Tigers, Shining Path, FARC and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. You will note that both Hamas and its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, are listed.
The origins of this decision lie in the 2012 attack in Bulgaria that left five Israeli tourists and a bus driver dead, as well as the conviction last March of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus for planning a similar attack. The argument being that these attacks on EU soil warrant the terrorism listing.
The Hezbollah issue has divided the EU’s member states for years. On the one hand are those countries that tend to take their foreign policy cues from the United States, and advocated a hard line against not only Hezbollah but all Islamist resistance movements. Then there were those states that recognized that the fragile political situation in Lebanon didn’t need another blow and that it was preferable to keep lines to the organization open.
Ironically, it was the United Kingdom, normally eager to distance itself from a common European endeavor, which led the push to place Hezbollah on the list. France, initially hesitant to jeopardize its position on the Lebanese political scene, only joined the UK after Hezbollah became openly involved in the Syrian conflict by directing the fight in Qusayr and Homs. Efforts to place Hezbollah on the list redoubled after Hassan Nasrallah in June admitted to sending Hezbollah fighters into Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces.
The timing of the decision, a week after the EU announced fairly limited restrictive measures against Israeli activities in the occupied West Bank, is curious, suggesting some kind of trade-off or conciliatory gesture towards Israel. Other than appeasing Israel, it is difficult to discern any benefits of this move to the political situation in Lebanon and even more so for the ongoing conflict in Syria. For an EU out of its depth regarding the onslaught in Syria, slapping sanctions on Hezbollah is primarily a signal that tries to fill a political void.
Another difficulty arises in the practical consequences of Hezbollah’s blacklisting. EU sanctions normally entail travel bans and asset freezes, yet the EU’s representative to Lebanon declared that no individuals will be targeted. The move is ostensibly meant to block fundraising for the organization’s military wing in Europe. Yet, Hezbollah’s financing network is designed to make it virtually impossible to distinguish between its social and military funding sources.
More poignantly, the notion of a ‘military wing’ that can somehow by dissociated from the ‘legitimate political wing’ of the organization is fictional. Hezbollah itself doesn’t distinguish between its activities, so why does the EU? Hezbollah’s leadership, Hassan Nasrallah and the Shura Council, are implicated in all aspects of the organization’s affairs, with Iran keeping a close watch. Hezbollah has removed as many intermediaries between the local military commanders and the leadership as possible in order to prevent infiltration by the Israeli intelligence services. Many of its commanders are already under sanction and wary about traveling for fear of assassination or arrest.
Apart from the fact that sanctions hardly ever work, whether they be crippling sanctions aimed at an entire economy or very restricted measures taken against individuals, they often have no clearly stated goal. What is the message that is being sent to Hezbollah? What action should the organization take, or not take, in order to be taken off the list? Experience has learned that it is much easier getting on the list than getting off it. It effectively becomes another political weapon, and pressure to include Hezbollah’s political wing will surely build.
Sanctions only have a chance of working when a fairly large set of circumstances is exactly right. Hezbollah will find ways to circumvent restrictions posed upon it; its financial and fundraising operations extending far beyond Europe. In fact, the organization has a complex network of both legal and illegal activities in Africa and South America where it is reportedly involved in the drug trade and money laundering, facilitated by Lebanon’s opaque banking system.
Despite officials’ rather naive assurances that listing only Hezbollah’s military wing will not affect political contacts with the group, diplomats will find it more difficult not only to effectively engage with its leaders, it will also make for clumsy relations with any Lebanese government that includes the party. It is not just the EU’s leeway that will suffer. Individual member states will see their position affected as well. How is one to separate the military issues at play from the politics? Moreover, this murky distinction will not greatly change the clandestine way some European governments have had contacts with Hezbollah in the past.
For other factions on Lebanon’s troubled political scene, this move can’t be good news. Hezbollah, already on the back foot, may further entrench itself, making its actions more unpredictable. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, who called for the inclusion of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s next cabinet, rightly argues that keeping Hezbollah around the table is necessary to stop tensions in the country from boiling over. And Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has seen his difficult task of forming a new cabinet becoming even more onerous. No wonder then that various top officials, Salam, Miqati, Sleiman, have publicly deplored the EU’s decision.
The EU has held a position which can be described as neutral at best, ineffectual at worst. While the lack of a truly common EU foreign policy is often decried, in some cases it is an asset, allowing the EU to use quiet diplomacy and its considerable array of financial instruments while its larger member states take on the more controversial issues.
The EU should engage with political actors instead of isolating them for the sake of cornering Iran or pleasing Israel. While other international players have long since taken sides, and suffer from a chronic lack of credibility, the EU could have played the role of more or less neutral broker, or offered its good offices. A small player with large means, it had the potential to play a positive role. Alas, the EU succumbed to American and Israeli pressure and now finds itself in an even more unenviable position than it already did. It has now become just another brawler in the melee, and a scrawny one at that.
Blacklisting Hezbollah is a political decision that, even though in the making for quite some time, was prompted by the situation in Syria. Incensed by the intervention of Hezbollah fighters there, the Gulf Cooperation Council announced sanctions against the group in June, targeting financial operations but also individuals based in the Gulf. Syria represents a lifeline for Hezbollah, without which the party would lose considerable leverage in both the Lebanese and regional political scene. Recent reports suggest that the group is implicated in a campaign to ‘ethnically’ cleanse parts of Homs province and to arrange the settlement of Shiites in order to create a geographically contiguous area linking the Beqaa valley to Alawite-controlled areas of the Syrian coast.
If Assad is to fall, Hezbollah will be forced to normalize relations not only with the other Lebanese parties but with foreign actors as well. Pushing the group against the wall with a terrorism listing might not be the best way to facilitate this outcome.
Only tangible engagement will be able to change Hezbollah’s priorities. Past listings, like that of Hamas, have not advanced the EU’s interests in the region. Further isolating a group that already senses it is fighting for its survival will have the effect of further limiting political options and may engender more violence. As the listing of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization will have little real effect, one wonders what the benefit is to the EU, except for a political victory for those who like to see the organization weakened, no matter the regional repercussions.
Bart Hesseling is associate editor of ArabsThink. He tweets @bhesseling