Hezbollah set to take centre stage as Pompeo heads to Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon – In January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on a diplomatic mission to scuttle Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. On Thursday, he is expected in Lebanon, where he is set to target another one of Iran’s allies, Hezbollah.

Pompeo is scheduled to hold talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and is expected to ask him to make greater efforts to shield Lebanese policies from Iranian influence – while knowing that that may be hard to achieve since Hezbollah has three appointees in Hariri’s cabinet and, along with its allies, controls 70 of the 128 seats in parliament.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB), described Hariri as a “lame duck” and said that neither the US nor its ally Saudi Arabia should expect him to deliver, even as they continue to back him as a Sunni counterbalance to Shia Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been vying for hegemony over the Muslim world since Iran’s 1979 revolution. Lebanon, home to both Shia and Sunnis, became an extended theatre for this rivalry.

“Pompeo’s visit comes soon after Iran’s foreign minister’s. He simply wants to say the US is not abandoning Lebanon just because Hezbollah is mighty strong,” Khashan told Al Jazeera.

Hezbollah has supporters across Lebanon and has become a part of the social fabric of the country since its establishment in the 1980s. It is also the strongest military faction in Lebanon.

In Syria, it supported the Syrian government in its fight against opposition forces and expanded its own and Iran’s influence in the region.

While the US, Israel and Gulf nations have banned Hezbollah in its entirety as a “terrorist organisation”, the European Union – with the exception of the United Kingdom – has designated only its military wing, not its political arm.

A major part of Pompeo’s visit will be devoted to warning Hezbollah. Local media reported that he is coming with a “list of conditions” that Lebanon must deliver on to curtail Hezbollah and, by association, Iran’s influence, if it wants to continue to receive US support.

Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the clues to Pompeo’s intentions in Lebanon could be gleaned from last week’s visit by David Satterfield; the acting US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

Satterfield did not meet President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s Christian ally in Lebanon. Even as local media quoted sources in the US embassy citing lack of time, it insinuated that the oversight carried a political message.

Ghaddar, an expert on Lebanese-US relations, said: “The visit is to let Hezbollah’s allies know that the US can also sanction them. It is time to start warning them and letting them know that an alliance with Hezbollah has a price. As Lebanon’s economy crumbles, Lebanon must want America on its side.”

Fresh sanctions?

A few days before the visit, Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah called on the group’s supporters to donate money to support their activities, saying that Western “sanctions and terror lists are a form of warfare” against the group. Experts said that pointed to the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed on Iran and Hezbollah.

Sami Nader, a political analyst, said that Pompeo might announce future plans to sanction more entities linked to Hezbollah. In February 2018, shortly before his predecessor Rex Tillerson visited Lebanon, the US sanctioned six individuals and seven businesses connected to the group.

The idea behind the sanctions was to target Hezbollah’s financial network at the same time as Iran was under increasingly debilitating sanctions. The double whammy was intended to hit funding for the group’s activities.

“I can see Pompeo threatening more sanctions on his visit because we are witnessing an increase in sanctions by the US in general,” Nader said.

Ghaddar said that the US government sees its active sanctions policy as working to its benefit.

“The sanctions are working for the United States’s interests in the region and we can expect more to be imposed on Hezbollah. But we do not know when that is going to happen. I suspect a threat could be made during Pompeo’s visit,” she told Al Jazeera.

However, according to AUB’s Khashan, Hezbollah has numerous sources of income and the sanctions do not hurt the group as much.

“Hezbollah is not part of the international monetary system. At the most, they might not have received as much cash from Iran because of the pressure of sanctions on Iran,” he said.

General Elias Farhat, a former officer with the Lebanese Army, agreed with Khashan. “The only way to contain Hezbollah is by talking to them,” he said.

A brief thaw

The US sees Hezbollah as an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the region. However, under the administration of former President Barack Obama, the US engaged with Iran and, experts said, also with Hezbollah.

Nader said that as part of Obama’s vision for the region, US officials met Hezbollah in Cyprus. However, he added, in the current atmosphere, talking to Hezbollah is “not on the table” for the US.

US policy in the Middle East was reversed under President Donald Trump, whose administration is pursuing a harsh anti-Iran agenda, more in line with the wishes of the US’s traditional regional allies in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

Lebanon’s armed forces receive aid from the US, among others [File: Hassan Abdallah/Reuters]

Ghaddar said that there was a debate raging within the US as to whether Washington should stop providing aid to Lebanon’s military.

The US has given the Lebanese army $2bn since 2005 as well as providing training and cooperation worth millions more. It is expected to give an additional $350m this year.

However, Ghaddar pointed out that this aid gives the US some leverage in a country otherwise under Iran’s sway.

“The US must continue to provide aid to the Lebanese armed forces while putting in place monitoring mechanisms to check that the money is not syphoned away by Hezbollah,” Ghaddar told Al Jazeera.

General Farhat disputed this argument, saying that the aid is used only by the army. But acknowledged that the army has worked alongside Hezbollah on some operations.

“The US must give aid to fight terrorism. [The] Lebanese Army and Hezbollah together fought back ISIS [ISIL] and al-Qaeda affiliates in Arsal on Lebanon’s border with Syria. What else are they expected to do?” Farhat said.

Most analysts agree that the US has few options to counter the group, least of all inside Lebanon. If challenged, Hezbollah has proven that it can bring the country to a halt in a matter of hours.

In 2008, as the government ordered the shutdown of Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and sought to remove Beirut Airport’s security chief over alleged ties to the group, Hezbollah fighters seized parts of Beirut and forced the government to reverse its decision.

However, the US seems determined to fight Hezbollah by imposing its own pressure on the Lebanese government and the group’s domestic allies by threatening sanctions and making it clear that its support does not come for free.

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