WASHINGTON - A U.S. government decision Tuesday to sanction two former Lebanese government ministers is the latest unprecedented campaign against Hezbollah, with some observers saying the move dramatically increases the risk for Lebanese politicians to engage with the U.S.-designated terror group.
The Trump administration said it blacklisted former Minister of Transportation and Public Works Yusuf Finyanus and former Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil because they had helped Hezbollah bypass U.S. sanctions and profit from multimillion-dollar government contracts.
Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor and researcher on Lebanon at George Washington University, said that Lebanon’s economy is highly dollarized, giving Washington a “tremendous leverage” to use sanctions to deter Lebanon’s political groups from cozying up to the Iran proxy when the country is trying to form a new government.
“In the past when the U.S. Treasury had moved to designate Lebanese banks, those banks would fall within 24 hours,” Maksad told VOA by phone. “These sanctions, in particular, are different and of a more significant caliber because it’s the first time that they target two former ministers.”
“Lebanese political and business actors are now much more cognizant of the risks working together with Hezbollah,” he added.
Khalil is a member of the Shiite Amal Movement, and Finyanus is a member of Christian political party Marada Movement. Both groups have denounced the designations, calling them a U.S. attack “targeting Lebanon and its sovereignty,” according to Reuters.
While announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement accused Hezbollah of exploiting Lebanon’s political system to spread “its malign influence.”
“The United States stands with the people of Lebanon in their calls for reform and will continue to use its authorities to target those who oppress and exploit them,” Mnuchin said.
Since its independence from France in 1943, Lebanon has practiced a complicated parliamentary system called “consociationalism” to divide power among the country’s three main groups, the Sunnis, Shiites and Maronite Christians.
As such, the country’s president has been a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite.
Unlike many Mideast countries, Lebanon is not an oil-rich nation, and more than 80% of its GDP comes from service sectors such as banking, tourism and construction. The U.S. Treasury says Hezbollah owns companies that are deeply involved in Lebanon’s economy.
The August 4 blast, caused by nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a highly populated civilian area, has led to the resignation of government and calls for deep political reform in the former French colony.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has visited Lebanon twice since the explosion, is leading an international effort to help Lebanon achieve economic recovery and political reform.
While no one expects the powerful influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah to disappear anytime soon, experts say international pressure is key to bringing about radical change in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah is still holding out,” said Phillip Smyth, a scholar on Shiite political movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Within the Lebanese government, they have strong allies and a very strong position. However, I would say they are facing internal dissent from a number of directions.”
He added, “Following the blast, Hezbollah, with its dominant position, has become the face of the very corruption which spans across the Lebanese government.”
Next week, Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib is expected to form a new Cabinet. Some observers say the recent U.S. sanctions are likely to influence the direction of the new government.
“If the French president's approach to Lebanon's ruling class was too soft, the American mode included heavy sticks,” said Sam Bazzi, the founder of Hezbollah Watch blog.
“This will hopefully break the stalemate in the country and create the opportunity for Adib to form the deliverance government that Lebanon desperately needs,” Bazzi said.
Mehdi Jedinia contributed to this story from Washington.