Barely a fortnight after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lebanonand threatened Hezbollah’s political allies to contain the group or face US sanctions, some of them have flown to Washington, DC, to lobby against them and assuage US concerns.
Officially, however, the Lebanese delegation is travelling to attend the 2019 Spring Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
While in Lebanon, Pompeo had said that the US is inclined to sanction political “individuals” linked to Hezbollah to curtail the group’s military and political growth and in effect the influence of its patron, Iran, in the region.
Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al Jazeera that, according to her sources, Pompeo warned President Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Speaker Nabih Berri of the Amal movement, with personal sanctions.
“I checked with people who were present at the dinner organised for Pompeo. They confirmed to me that he told both Aoun and Berri that they would be sanctioned unless they pull the reins on Hezbollah,” Ghaddar said.
May Chidiac, the new minister of state for administrative development and a representative of the Christian Lebanese Forces Party, which is seen to be close to the US, said that while she is not privy to the details of one-on-one meetings between the leaders, Pompeo’s message was clear.
“It was a strong warning for all those who back Hezbollah that the sanctions may include them, its political allies. He said it very bluntly,” Chidiac said.
‘Stability, not war’
The first on the list to be targeted are believed to be Hezbollah’s Shia allies in the Amal Movement.
Yassine Jaber, an MP affiliated to the Amal movement, boarded a flight to the US on Saturday, along with Ibrahim Kenaan of the FPM. He downplayed the visit and said it was not an assignment to cajole the US, rather it was just a routine meeting on the invitation of the World Bank.
However, he told Al Jazeera that Lebanon was not looking for any sort of confrontation with US’s ally, Israel, and he would tell the US the same.
“Lebanon wants stability, not war,” he said. “We have too much on our plate. We have to resurrect our economy, take care of the burden of displaced Syrians. We don’t want war with Israel. In fact, the southern border has been peaceful for over a decade.”
Rami Najem, spokesperson of the Amal Movement, cautiously worded his response and simply said that any kind of sanctions would be debilitating.
“We think that the whole country will feel the bad consequences if sanctions are imposed,” he said.
Alain Aoun, an MP with the FPM, was clearer, saying the Lebanese delegation would discuss a range of issues in their meetings, including the looming sanctions.
“In their meetings with the US Congress they will address all issues, also, of course, the sanctions, any sanctions,” he said.
Jaber and Kenaan will be in the US for five working days. Once they have wrapped up the World Bank conference they will meet Marshall Billingslea, an assistant secretary of the US Treasury Department and David Satterfield, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
While Hezbollah’s political allies are tight-lipped about the threats made, a scramble to control the situation has begun behind closed doors, sources told Al Jazeera.
Berri and Aoun cannot contain Hezbollah, the sources said, and are instead hoping the US might understand the limitations on their power.
Meanwhile, experts say a punitive policy against Hezbollah’s political allies could backfire.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow with The Century Foundation and author of a book on Hezbollah, said that while applying pressure against Hezbollah’s “destabilising military moves” is understandable, it is less understandable, and “certainly counterproductive”, to sanction Lebanese citizens and politicians who are considered legitimate figures in public or civic life and who are not alleged to be involved in violence.
“At a minimum, they might inflict pain or inconvenience on some figures who support Hezbollah,” he said. “At worst, these sanctions could punish Lebanese who are not advancing Hezbollah’s project, and could backfire by inviting more sympathy for Hezbollah.”
The US under President Donald Trump, however, seems to have ventured on a relentless campaign to put maximum pressure on Iran.
Reportedly, Washington is soon to ban the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in its entirety as a terrorist organisation. The US sees Hezbollah as a proxy for the IRGC.
While sanctioning the group’s allies is bound to affect the already fragile state of Lebanon, it appears as if the Trump administration sees this as mere collateral damage in its efforts to curb Iran’s influence in the Middle East.