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Trump Is Trying to Push Hezbollah Out of Lebanon. He Could Turn Them Into Heroes

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Hezbollah flag hangs on a concrete barrier in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel, Aug. 26, 2020.
A Hezbollah flag hangs on a concrete barrier in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel, Aug. 26, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Trump administration is apparently in its final throes and is lashing out at anyone it can. While predictions are now focused on the condition of the world after Trump leaves, or is removed from the White House, there will still be a period of about two months until he packs up the gilt pen he uses to sign new legislation, sanctions or the annulment of sanctions, treaties and agreements.

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This is the dangerous transition period in which Trump can outdo himself, show the full extent of his craziness and leave behind a legacy of horror. Alternatively, he could freeze the global situation as it was up until November 3 and plot his return to his business ventures.

For many countries and leaders, this is the time either to go into their bunker, or to make a pilgrimage to Washington to reap any final benefits Trump can bestow.  At least one country, Lebanon, has already realized how critical the coming weeks will be for it. On Friday, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Gebran Bassil, a senior Lebanese politicians, and one of the most controversial, which includes freezing his assets and accounts in the United States and prohibiting companies from doing business with him. The pretext for the sanctions is that Bassil, who has served as Lebanon’s minister of communications, of energy and of water, and as foreign minister, is up to his neck in corruption, in appointments of cronies to senior positions and thwarting the establishment of a functioning government.

Unusually, the sanctions were imposed based on the Magnitsky Act, approved in 2012 by President Barack Obama for the purpose of imposing sanctions against individuals in the Russian government after the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died mysteriously in jail. In 2016, President Trump expanded the act to use it globally against any entity that contravenes human rights and is tainted with corruption. Theoretically, the law can be applied to friendly leaders, such as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the United Arab Emirates, the Egyptian president and even the prime minister of Israel. In Lebanon itself, it’s unlikely that any politician, at any level, can feel safe given this law. But in the case of Bassil, the use of the Magnitsky Act is just an excuse for the real reason. Bassil is the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the large Maronite Christian bloc in parliament. He is the son-in-law of Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun and an ally of Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Gebran Bassil during a news conference at a Syrian refugee camp, in Arsal, near the border with Syria, east Lebanon, 2018.Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

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According to reports from Bassil’s associates, for many months the U.S. has been trying unsuccessfully to persuade Aoun and Bassil to cut their ties with Hezbollah and at least block the latter’s entry into the government. According the Lebanese website Al Akhbar, associated with Hezbollah, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea recently presented a “list of demands” to Bassil, the main one being cutting ties with Hezbollah. Bassil refused.

The alliance between his movement and Hezbollah was made back in 2006, about a year after Aoun, who established the Free Patriotic Movement, returned from a 15-year exile in France. The alliance shocked Lebanon, because Aoun was the last general who fought against the Syrians and Hezbollah, and only thanks to the intervention of France was he given asylum and his life was saved. After the Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon following the protests after the murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Aoun decided that the moment had come to return to Lebanese politics. The expectation was that it would be Aoun who could raise the banner of opposition to Syrian influence and fight Hezbollah. But political opportunism won out. Aoun allied himself with Hezbollah and the Syrian president and 10 years later, he won the presidency.

The American struggle to unlink the president and his party from Hezbollah seems at the moment one aspiration too far, one that could risk the very establishment of a new government in Lebanon, which Saad Hariri is now working hard to accomplish. Bassil responded to the sanctions unequivocally, tweeting: “No sanctions frightened me, nor promises tempted me… it is written for us in the Orient to carry our cross every day … in order to survive.” Bassil also responded to a tweet by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing him of assisting terror, by tweeting that for him, Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party, not a terror group.

But the sanctions on Bassil are also a direct message to Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri that anyone who decides to include Hezbollah in the new government will be on a direct collision course with the U.S. government. This is no simple threat for a country that needs all the economic assistance it can get to extricate itself from its deep economic crisis and receive the billions in donations and loans it has requested.

The American decision also places Hezbollah’s opponents in a dilemma: whether to support political disengagement from the organization or to take a patriotic stance that considers the U.S. move as intervention in Lebanon’s internal affairs and an intention to dictate the government’s composition. Social media is already awash with new accounts entitled “We are all Gebran Bassil,” harshly criticizing the American decision and saying it shows that Trump doesn’t care anymore if Lebanon falls apart. Bassil might now become a national hero, and Hezbollah will earn a commission.     

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