Analysis |

New Sanctions on Hezbollah Put U.S. Between Rock and a Hard Place

By including the Lebanese intelligence chief on a new sanctions bill, Congress members might force the U.S. to choose between losing an asset in the Mideast, or appearing weak on Hezbollah

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Hezbollah flag and a poster depicting Nasrallah along a street, near Sidon, Lebanon July 7, 2020.
A Hezbollah flag and a poster depicting Nasrallah along a street, near Sidon, Lebanon July 7, 2020. Credit: ALI HASHISHO/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A particularly harshly worded bill came before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 30. Entitled “The Hezbollah Money Laundering Prevention Act of 2020,” it was introduced by Joe Wilson, ranking member of the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He was joined in sponsoring the bill by 12 other Congress members.

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The main innovation is that it includes municipalities and banks in various districts of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah, and thus, Wilson hopes, could “go a long way toward drying up the Iranian terror proxy’s resources.” Ostensibly, this looks like the kind of bill that President Donald Trump would be happy to sign off on, and would satisfy Israel.

There is still time until the bill passes, if it does pass, all phases of legislation, but one clause stands out and raises the question of whether the bill isn’t shooting the United States in the foot: “The President shall include Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, on the list required.” It personally sanctions the country’s intelligence chief.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security Directorate, arrives at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, June 11, 2019.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security Directorate, arrives at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, June 11, 2019.Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Abbas Ibrahim was appointed to the senior post in 2011, but even before then, his name could be found at every political and military juncture in Lebanon. He was the liaison officer between the Lebanese army and the international forces involved in the application of UN Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. He handled the relationship between the Palestinian refugee camps and the Lebanese army. He was involved in the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas in Lebanon, and between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. Today, Ibrahim is a key figure in talks between Lebanon and Israel over demarcating their maritime border; and he manages to have tight connections with the Assad regime in Syria and with Iran, and at the same time, with his counterparts in the U.S. administration.

In Washington, Ibrahim is dubbed an “agent for special matters.” In October, he was flown by private plane to Washington at the invitation of National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who received him at the White House. He met with CIA chief Gina Haspel and with David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs. In the evening, he was a guest in the home of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who spent four years in prison in Iran and was released last year, apparently thanks to Ibrahim’s efforts. At that same opportunity the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, established in memory of journalist James Foley, who was abducted and murdered in 2014 in Syria by the Islamic State, awarded him its “International Hostage Freedom Award.”

Ibrahim says was told nothing about any intention to impose sanctions on him, on the contrary. The talks he held with the senior U.S. officials centered on the fate of two American citizens, Austin Tice, a freelance journalist, and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American psychotherapist, who were detained in Syria in 2012 and 2017, most likely by government forces. Ibrahim’s hosts wanted to find out what could be done to free them after the U.S. emissary Kash Patel, who was Trump’s special adviser on terror, returned from Damascus empty-handed. When he got back from Washington, Ibrahim went to Damascus. On his return, he said he was in continuing contact with Tice’s mother and he was doing everything possible to free her son, but he could not say whether he had gotten Syria to agree to release him.

The U.S. government knows full well the system of ties that Ibrahim maintains with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. A U.S. political official told Haaretz that Ibrahim was instrumental in bringing together a new Lebanese government under Sa’ad Hariri, and that the U.S. administration thinks he is a stabilizing force in Lebanon’s complex political arena. What, then, pushed the Congress members to call for personal sanctions?

Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since August 2012, hold up photos of him during a new conference, at the Press Club, in Beirut, Lebanon, July 20, 2017.
Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since August 2012, hold up photos of him during a new conference, at the Press Club, in Beirut, Lebanon, July 20, 2017.Credit: Bilal Hussein,AP

The answer apparently lies with another U.S. citizen, Amer Fakhoury, whose story was reported in this column in March. Fakhoury, who was the commander of the notorious Khiam Prison, left Lebanon for the United States in 2000, and started a new life as a high-class restaurateur. Last year, he returned to Lebanon after receiving assurances from the president and government no harm would come to him. But as a result of public pressure he was arrested, and only released after the U.S. government threatened sanctions.

Fakhoury is gone now, taken away by illness five months later; but his release sparked a huge storm in Lebanon, specifically because government and intelligence officials seemed to bend to U.S. demands. According to his family, Fakhoury said before he died that he had been subjected to harsh torture in prison, and had been denied medical attention. The family said they would spare no effort in prosecuting those responsible for his arrest, and the treatment that apparently led to his death. First on their list is Abbas Ibrahim, who, as the head of Lebanon’s General Directorate of Security, is perceived as the person directly and mainly responsible for the affair.

The sanctions bill puts the U.S. government between a rock and a hard place. If it passes, it might lose one of the most important mediators in negotiating the release of American prisoners, and an essential liaison in handling the crisis in Lebanon. If the law is vetoed, it will seem as if the administration is not doing everything it can to seriously fight the sources financing Hezbollah. Ibrahim will also find himself in an embarrassing situation, because it will become crystal clear that he is a trusted asset of the Americans, who did not hesitate to impose sanctions on other Lebanese citizens, while giving a pass to the intelligence chief.

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