Terrorism

Hizbullah's allies in Lebanon fear US sanctions

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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This file photo from May 23rd, 2018, shows then Transport Minister Yusef Fenianos arriving at parliament in Beirut. The US on September 8th, 2020, slapped sanctions on Fenianos and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil for alleged corruption and support of Hizbullah. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

The recent US sanctions against two former cabinet ministers in Lebanon over support to Hizbullah is part of a wider strategy of escalation against the party and its supporters, experts and analysts told Al-Mashareq.

Following this move, they said, some Hizbullah allies have started distancing themselves from the party, fearful they will be targeted next.

The US on September 8th imposed sanctions on former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport minister Yusef Fenianos, freezing any assets they hold in the US and making any financial transactions with them a crime.

The Amal party, of which Khalil is a member, immediately condemned the sanctions against him, while Hizbullah announced "solidarity" with the former ministers.

Hizbullah allies 'fearful'

In sanctioning Khalil and Fenianos, the US is signaling it will continue to ramp up pressure on Hizbullah, said Antoine Mrad, advisor to Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

"The sanctions will have a serious impact, as they have intimidated the party's allies," he told Al-Mashareq, noting that businessmen and companies that maintain a direct or indirect link to the party are fearful of being sanctioned.

Some Hizbullah-affiliated figures have started to "recalculate their positions, announcing that reforms should be implemented and Hizbullah's weapon arsenal must be addressed", he said.

Amal and Hizbullah statements condemning the sanctions "have no effect, and were made in the context of taking a stance and reassuring their public, because they feel that fear is beginning to take hold among them", Mrad said.

On the other hand, he noted, Hizbullah "has an opportunity to distance itself from Iran if it wants to preserve a minimum level of survival and its existence".

'Widening the circle'

US sanctions on the two former ministers "represent a major shift in the way the US approaches Hizbullah as part of the endeavor to rein in Iran", writer and journalist Sanaa al-Jack told Al-Mashareq.

The US previously limited sanctions to the party and its members, she said, and widening the circle indicates escalation is on the horizon regarding the US policy toward Iran's most powerful affiliate.

The sanctions signal a growing determination to put an end to Hizbullah's infiltration of Lebanese administrations in order to pass projects that serve the Iranian agenda, she added.

The US action is a prelude to exposing the party's networks and doing away with its dangerous influence on Lebanon and its future, Lebanese Centre for Research and Consulting director Hassan Qutb told Al-Mashareq.

"Most Lebanese feel that these sanctions could mark the beginning of a new phase to replace this system with independent, patriotic leaders whose hands are clean [of corruption]," he said.

Exploiting corrupt system

Qutb pointed out that corruption is deeply entrenched in Lebanon, and said Hizbullah and the Amal party exploit the system to achieve their goals.

They have done this by "controlling borders to collect fees, and by inflating employment in public administrations to funnel money to their coffers from public funds and serve their followers", he said.

Sympathisers in official agencies also have facilitated the award of contracts to Hizbullah and Amal, he said.

Qutb expressed hope that corrupt figures will continue to be exposed and that more international attention will be given to the situation in Lebanon "to lift it out of its economic crises, financial corruption and armed lawlessness".

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