The European Union now considers much of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement a terrorist organization and that is complicating efforts to form a new government in Beirut, according to Lebanese officials.
The blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing came after months of lobbying by Britain and the Netherlands and with the encouragement of the United States. The EU decision, which also follows Hezbollah’s forceful intervention in the Syrian civil war, went ahead this week despite diplomatic efforts by Lebanese officials to head it off.
Lebanese officials had warned the EU that the timing of the terror designation would be unhelpful to prime minister-designate Tamman Salam’s efforts to form a new cabinet.
The Lebanese were also worried that the terror designation could cause further troubles between Lebanon’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities, which have clashed repeatedly because of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.
In a bid to defuse Shiite anger over the blacklisting, some of Hezbollah’s main Sunni critics have been especially cautious about the EU move, not wishing to add to political tensions. The Future Movement, Hezbollah’s main Sunni rival, expressed “extreme regret and concern” at the EU decision.
In a statement, the Future Movement praised Hezbollah for its role in defending Lebanese territory from Israel and said the Shiite group was an “essential Lebanese faction that represents a significant slice of the Lebanese.” Even so, it called on Hezbollah to end its military support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to withdraw its fighters from Syria.
Syria intervention was key factor
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told Al-Arabiya TV that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria was a key reason for the blacklisting. EU countries that supported the move say also there is compelling evidence that Hezbollah was behind a bomb attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last year in which six people died. The group denies any involvement.
Syrian troops roll into the center of Qusair June 5, 2013, after capturing the stragegic town with key help from Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
Lebanon’s President, Michel Sleiman, has urged the European Union
to reconsider its decision to list Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group.
Negotiations over the formation of a new cabinet have been prolonged and difficult and the country is now being run by a caretaker government.
The Future Movement-led March 14th
bloc has backed a bid by Salam, the prime minister-designate, to form a non-partisan government. For its part, the Hezbollah-led March 8th
alliance wants a cabinet lineup that represents the political parties according to their size in Parliament – a formula that would allow the Shiite party to dominate the next government as much as it did the last one.
“The EU’s decision has now almost guaranteed Hezbollah intransigence,” said an adviser to the Future Movement. “Hezbollah will not only stick to its demand for veto power on any major decisions by a future government, but it will also want to dominate the next cabinet to make a point to the Europeans and to force the Europeans to have to deal with Hezbollah politicians and those aligned with the movement.
“The message will be to emphasize Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon” the adviser said.
U.S. made similar move
In its condemnation of the EU decision, Hezbollah appeared to hint that it intends to adopt just such an approach and to embarrass the EU. It warned that when the United States made a similar move against Hezbollah, “that only generated further failures and disappointments” for the West.
The blacklisting raises many questions about how EU countries plan to deal with Lebanon. European officials and diplomats have stressed since the blacklisting was announced that the terror designation only applies to Hezbollah’s military wing and not to the movement’s political arm or to its social and welfare work running hospitals and clinics and providing aid to the jobless or Syrian refugees.
British Ambassador Tom Fletcher said on his Twitter feed that the organization’s blacklisting of Hezbollah would not affect dealings with the party’s political wing. It “does not alter cooperation with Lebanon [government], nor EU contact with political [representatives],” Fletcher said.
In meetings this week, the EU’s ambassador in Lebanon, Angelina Eichhorst, has carried the same message, arguing the Europeans had to show that “acts of terrorism are unacceptable irrespective of the perpetrators,” but insisting it would “not prevent the continuation of dialogue with all political parties in Lebanon and would not affect the EU’s financial support to Lebanon including humanitarian assistance.”
“The EU will work with any cabinet that represents all parties and even if Hezbollah was part of it,” Eichhorst told reporters following a meeting with caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour.
Critics of the terrorist designation say dividing up Hezbollah between politicians and fighters is meaningless. Most analysts agree, arguing it is impossible to distinguish between the different wings, with the same personnel functioning in both. British Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to concede that in his remarks welcoming the EU move, saying, “we will have to distinguish as best we can” between the group’s various parts.
Supporters of the blacklisting argue that the fine print and distinctions don’t matter. They say the terrorist designation is meant only as a warning to Hezbollah, an effort to persuade the movement’s leaders to pull back from defending Assad, and to refrain from any repeat on European soil of last year’s bombing in Bulgaria.
Matthew Levitt, a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department, believes the EU blacklisting could prove successful as an exercise in making Hezbollah think twice before repeating anything like the Bulgarian bombing.
“It is very likely that Hezbollah will curtail the amount of its activities in Europe having to do with militancy or fundraising,” Levitt said.
That is also the position of the influential Daily Star
newspaper in Beirut. In an editorial, it argued that “the EU has so far been magnanimous toward Lebanon
by differentiating between the military and political wings of Hezbollah. This act of charity will spare Lebanon – whose fate is so intertwined with the resistance party – the immediate, devastating consequences that could have come” if the entire movement had been blacklisted.
It urges Hezbollah “to reflect,” arguing, “if Hezbollah doubles down on its fighting in Syria, the decision can just as easily be amended to cover all Hezbollah members.”