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Iran-backed Hezbollah Sanctioned by US Senate

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link, in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 12, 2018.

U.S. Senate has recently passed two bills sanctioning the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Once signed by U.S. President Donald Trump, the sanctions will target foreign nationals and companies that provide financial, material or technological support to Hezbollah and its affiliates in the region.

The Lebanese militant group has footprints beyond Lebanon in places like Syria, but analysts believe that with increasing U.S. pressures, the militant group would be forced to reduce its military activities outside of Lebanon.

"Hezbollah is clearly facing a number of financial pressures due to the war in Syria," said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to support the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Lebanese Shi'ite militant group has been instrumental in major gains made against Syrian rebel forces throughout Syria, particularly in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus suburbs.

But such involvement in Syria's war has been costly for Hezbollah. Increasing numbers of its fighters have been reportedly killed in battlefields across the war-torn country.

"Further tensions will not be good for the organization. They are not only trying to support their veterans of the Syrian conflict, but also thousands of wounded, [which] costs money and requires proper facilities Hezbollah does not yet have," Smyth told VOA.

Effects on Lebanon

While some of the U.S. sanctions could target Hezbollah-affiliated entities inside Lebanon, experts downplay the effects of the sanctions on the local Lebanese economy.

"The main purpose of the recent U.S. sanctions on [Hezbollah] is to drain its sources of funding without affecting the Lebanese economy," Riyad Tabara, a former Lebanese ambassador in Washington, told the Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria.

For decades, the U.S. has been providing financial assistance to Lebanon, where Hezbollah has gradually gained influence over the government and the country's national politics.

Effects on Hezbollah

Some analysts like Salem Zahran, who is head of Medic Focal Center, a pro-Hezbollah group based in Beirut, charge that the new U.S. sanctions would not seriously undermine Hezbollah and its activities within Lebanon and abroad.

"These measures will almost have zero impact because Hezbollah relies on cash supply from Iran and Syria," Zahran said.

"Tehran and Damascus airports are regularly used to transport cash to Hezbollah and these two countries are strategic allies of Hezbollah that will continue providing financial assistance to the group, even if U.S. sanctions get tougher," he added.

Iran, Hezbollah's main sponsor, also has been targeted by U.S. sanctions in recent months. Since May of this year when the U.S withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. has imposed a number of embargoes against Tehran.

In August, the U.S. re-imposed a set of sanctions prohibiting Iran's purchase of U.S. dollars and precious metals, which is part of a larger U.S. measure aimed at cutting the country off from the international financial system. A second round of U.S. sanctions in November will target Iran's energy sector.

"The Iran sanctions have officially been cast. These are the most biting sanctions ever imposed, and in November they ratchet up to yet another level. Anyone doing business with Iran will not be doing business with the United States," President Donald Trump said in a tweet in August.

"The new wave of sanctions on Iran [in November] will necessarily affect Hezbollah. So Hezbollah will be hurt either by direct sanctions or by actions against Iran," said former Lebanese ambassador Tabara.

Measures inside U.S.

Last week U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions designated five groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, as "top transnational organized crime threats," in an effort to step up pressure against criminal organizations.

As part of the recent designation, a multi-committee task force has been formed to "coordinate our efforts and develop a plan to take each of these groups off of our streets for good," Sessions said.

The committee on Hezbollah will be led by Ilan Graff, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, overseeing the prosecution of two alleged Hezbollah members, the first-ever Hezbollah operatives to be charged with terrorism in the United States.

Sessions created the team in January as part of the U.S. government anti-Hezbollah campaign, accusing the group of involvement in drug trafficking and vowing to "prosecute those who provide financial support to Hezbollah in an effort to eradicate the illicit networks that fuel terrorism and the drug crisis."

Hezbollah has allegedly run drug and terrorist operations in the Middle East, Europe, East Asia and Latin America.

"The Trump administration has taken a number of concrete moves against the financial assets of Hezbollah, other Iranian regional proxies (particularly in Iraq and Bahrain), and IRGC assets," Smyth of the Washington Institute said.

"However, if the administration hopes to truly pressure Hezbollah, it will need to use more than just rhetoric and a few listings," Smyth added.