Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 12 Table of Contents
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December 2001 


Has American Pressure Sidelined Hezbollah?
by Gary C. Gambill

According to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, earlier this month the Lebanese Shi'ite Islamist movement Hezbollah agreed to suspend its war against Israeli forces in the disputed Shebaa Farms enclave.1 However, neither the Lebanese nor Syrian governments have publicly confirmed the deal (according to Al-Nahar, the lack of publicity was one of Hezbollah's preconditions) and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly declared in recent weeks that no halt to the violence would be forthcoming.

Nevertheless, it appears that the unprecedented level of American pressure on Damascus and Beirut to rein in Hezbollah over the last two months may have produced results - Hezbollah has not launched an attack against Israeli forces since October 22.

Demise of the Quid Pro Quo

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration excluded Hezbollah, along with Syrian-backed Palestinian groups, from its war on terror in order to secure the backing of Arab states. However, from the very beginning, American officials were concerned that Hezbollah's sporadic attacks against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area, which had provoked Israeli retaliation against Syrian forces in Lebanon twice before this year, could undermine Arab cooperation in the war on terror by inflaming anti-Israeli sentiments in the Middle East. Thus, the United States offered the Lebanese government and its Syrian patron a quid pro quo: the US would not demand that Lebanon deploy troops to the border area or freeze the group's assets as long as Damascus and Beirut ensure that the group does not launch any additional attacks against Israeli forces.

For the first month after September 11, the American anti-terror campaign was strictly limited to the al-Qa'ida terror network. A September 24 executive order threatened sanctions against states or financial institution that do business with 27 groups and individuals tied to bin Laden. Although Hezbollah was included in the State Department's update of its list of foreign terrorist organizations on October 5, this merely confirmed an existing designation and carried with it no explicit threat of sanctions.2 On October 12, the Bush administration released an additional list of 39 individuals, which included the former head of Hezbollah's special overseas operations, Imad Mughniyah, and two other Lebanese nationals, but no members of the group's current leadership were mentioned.

Moreover, whereas American officials periodically raised the issue of Syrian-backed Palestinian groups, there was virtually no criticism of Hezbollah by US diplomats in Lebanon. The American ambassador in Beirut, Vincent Battle, was even reported by one Lebanese newspaper to have told guests at a recent dinner that Hezbollah has nothing to do with the terrorism that the US is combatting.3 In fact, when one Lebanese newspaper erroneously reported that American officials had demanded that the Lebanese government freeze the assets of a list of individuals that included Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his predecessor, Sobhi Toufaili,4 Battle issued a heated denial. "They are not included on the list," he told reporters on October 19. "I won't say anything more about the lists ever again."5

The quid pro quo nearly fell apart when Hezbollah launched a mortar attack on Israeli outposts on October 3 - its first operation in three months. However, the attack did not cause any injuries or structural damage (in fact, Lebanese press reports suggested that it was deliberately intended not to do so), and American officials were apparently persuaded by Lebanese officials that the operation was merely a symbolic response to several days of Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.

On October 22, however, Hezbollah launched a second attack on Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area, this time causing considerable structural damage. More importantly, shortly after the attack Hassan Nasrallah declared that more attacks would be coming and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara publicly defended the operation.

Immediately after the attack, Battle contacted President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to issue what one Lebanese official described as "a strongly worded message that sounded like a warning."10 In Washington, President Bush reportedly called Hezbollah a terrorist group of "global reach" for the first time during a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.6

The Gloves Come Off

Over the next two months, the United States steadily escalated pressure on the Lebanese government to act decisively to rein in Hezbollah. On November 3, the Bush administration added Hezbollah to its September 24 list of terrorist organizations - raising for the first time the threat of sanctions against states and international financial institutions that decline to freeze its assets. "The new executive order gave us more authority to act against individuals, against organizations that are associated with these terrorist groups, and against banks that facilitate the flow of funds for them," said US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

However, Lebanese officials defiantly rejected US demands that they freeze Hezbollah's assets in the country. "The country will not follow the United States in freezing Hezbollah's assets because it views the group as a resistance movement and not a terrorist organization," said Finance Minister Fouad Siniora on November 6. "We stress that those who are trying to liberate their lands are merely practicing resistance," he added. Information Minister Ghazi Aridi called the classification "another useless attempt by the Americans to curb anti-Israeli resistance."7 Meanwhile, Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud joined his Syrian counterpart in canceling plans to attend a UN General Assembly session in New York.

In the weeks that followed, the US escalated the pressure. On November 11, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated that Lebanon's lack of cooperation in the war on terror could jeopardize its "integration into the world economy" and put its economic "survival" at risk in an interview on ABC. The Lebanese press subsequently reported threats by the US to cut the $35 million in economic aid it provides to Lebanon each year and to block Lebanon's attempts to organize an international donor meeting to bail out the country's moribund economy (the Paris II conference has been repeatedly postponed due to lack of interest).

Vincent Battle
Since mid-November, Lebanes President Emile Lahoud and other officials have focused their diplomatic efforts on disputing the Bush administration's contention that Hezbollah is a terrorist group with "global reach," emphasizing that its activities are confined to Lebanon.

However, in a December 9 interview broadcast by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), Ambassador Battle reiterated that "Hezbollah is on the US list of terrorist organizations because it is a group that carries out terrorist acts and is capable of staging them [with] vast global reach." In an unusually direct affront to the Lebanese president, he added that Lahoud's claim that the group's activities are confined to Lebanon was "incorrect in light of the data available to the US administration" and "did not convince the American government." He pointed specifically to the fact that Hezbollah has trained members of the Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad - both of which are classified as terrorist groups by the Bush administration - and said that he had raised the issue of "Hezbollah's activities that transcend Lebanon" with Lahoud.

Later in the interview, Battle dropped a second bombshell indicating that he had received new instructions from Washington. "The Shebaa Farms are not Lebanese," said Battle, referring to the disputed enclave where Hezbollah has concentrated its attacks against Israeli forces. "They are simply an alibi."

Lebanese officials were stunned by Battle's unprecedented remarks, but played them down publicly. The following day, Lahoud said only that "Hezbollah has no activities that go beyond resisting Israel in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict" - a carefully-worded statement that did not actually dispute Battle's allegations (e.g. training Palestinian fighters could be said to be within the bounds of "resistance" to Israel).

Not surprisingly, Hezbollah officials and members of its parliamentary bloc condemned the ambassador's remarks. Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem called Battle statements "disrespectful and offensive," MP Muhammad Raad called them "Israeli-inspired blackmail," while MP Ibrahim Bayan declared that the Lebanese government "should expel the American ambassador." Interestingly, however, Nasrallah stopped short of calling for Battle's expulsion. The Hezbollah leader challenged the US ambassador to provide evidence that Hezbollah's activities go beyond resistance to Israel - a sleight of hand (Battle said that the group's activities go beyond Lebanon, not beyond resistance to Israel) intended to reframe the issue of what the US finds unacceptable - rather than categorically denouncing him.

After meeting with Lahoud in Beirut on December 14, US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns struck a conciliatory tone and carefully explained that the US objects to particular policies of Hezbollah, not the movement itself. "We do first recognize that Hezbollah has a number of different dimensions, as a political party, as a social welfare organization," said Burns, " but the United States continues to be concerned about terrorist activities that go well beyond . . . the borders of this country."

This did not elicit expressions of moderation from Hezbollah, however. That same afternoon, speaking before thousands of supporters during the Jerusalem Day rally in the Shi'ite southern suburbs of Beirut, Nasrallah declared that "suicide bombings are the only way to defeat the Zionists" and explicitly endorsed the killing of Israeli citizens. "Pay no attention to those who say there are civilians and soldiers in Israel," he said, "they are all occupiers and invaders, partners in crimes and massacres."

Shortly thereafter, US Ambassador Vincent Battle asked Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to officially disavow Nasrallah's proclamation. The prime minister subsequently remarked, "Lebanon's position is clear. It was transparent in the April Accords [signed after Israel's 1996 Grapes of Wrath campaign] that both sides should stage no attacks on civilians on both sides of the frontier," but this statement was merely a reiteration of his government's acceptance of a US-brokered quid pro quo in south Lebanon, not a categorical rejection of violence against civilians.

The British EU Initiative

Amid this escalating war of words, the US backed a British initiative to thwart Lebanon's goal of entering the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Agreement, which would establish a free-trade zone on both sides of the Mediterranean by 2010. From an economic standpoint, relations with the European Union are much more important than relation with the United States. Over 80% of Lebanon's annual imports are from EU member countries, while its comparatively meager exports to the EU exceed those to the US. Moreover, the EU provides about one-third of economic aid received by Lebanon and accounts for more foreign investment than the United States. Although the association agreement would not have a direct short-term impact on the Lebanese economy, it would have a potentially enormous indirect effect by boosting investor confidence in Lebanon.

The association agreement was originally scheduled to be signed in early December. However, on November 30 the British demanded that the agreement include an explicit Lebanese commitment to combat terrorism during a meeting of senior EU officials in Brussels. After London officially submitted the demand on December 7, the EU delegate to Beirut, Patrick Renauld, announced that a new clause in the accord would stipulate that Lebanon "agree to cooperate with a view to preventing and repressing terrorist acts within the framework of [UN Security Council] Resolution 1373." According to Renauld, the anti-terror clause was "identical" to those included in EU association agreements with Algeria and Egypt and had "nothing to do with American demands regarding Hezbollah."8

While Hezbollah is currently not recognized by the UN as a terrorist organization, Lebanese officials feared that this could change in the future and prevent implementation of the association agreement. However, France, which has long refused to condemn Hezbollah operations against Israel, remained opposed to the clause. The next day, Prime Minister Hariri flew to Paris and met with French President Jacques Chirac to negotiate an alternative acceptable to the British. The French subsequently proposed a compromise whereby Lebanon will sign a separate letter to the EU secretariat pledging to combat terrorism.

On December 12, British Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Kinchen met with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Haret Hreik, the first time a senior British diplomat has met with a leader of the group. After the meeting, Kinchen remarked that "there is still a cell or group [within Hezbollah] which is terrorist according to British law" and that continuing Hezbollah attacks against Israeli forces across the UN-drawn blue line go "beyond any claim to be resisting foreign occupation of Lebanese territory."

After Kinchen's meeting with Nasrallah, Britain tentatively accepted the compromise. Later that day, the French ambassador in Beirut announced that the agreement will be initialed in Brussels on December 20, but not actually signed, citing "technicalities involving the drafting of the texts." However, just days later, Lebanese officials announced that the initialing of the text had been postponed until January 10 due to a scheduling conflict.

While it is not yet clear why the initialing was postponed, it is possible that the Syrians did not want the Lebanese government to sign a letter to the EU committing to fight terrorism until after the EU had released its list of designated individuals and groups linked to terrorism later in the month.

These concerns would have been warranted, as Britain was lobbying for the inclusion of Hezbollah's "external security organization" (the "cell or group" within Hezbollah to which Kinchen referred) on the list. In fact, on December 27, the Associated Press, citing an advance copy of the list it had received from EU sources, reported that Hezbollah's "external security organization" was on the list. But when the EU released its list of "persons, groups and entities involved in terrorist acts" the next day, it conspicuously excluded Hezbollah, even though two Palestinian groups (Islamic Jihad and Izzedine al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas) were included.

Lebanese officials were ecstatic. "This shows that the position of Lebanon, which makes a distinction between resistance and terrorism, has been understood," said Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud the following day. However, it is likely that the last minute exclusion of Hezbollah resulted from some sort of understanding between the EU, the Lebanese and Syrian governments, and Hezbollah to suspend attacks on the Shebaa Farms, at least temporarily.

Whether Hezbollah would abide by such an understanding remains to be seen. Whereas the group largely abided by the terms of the April 1996 agreement, which banned attacks on civilians by Israel and Hezbollah, the comparison is misleading - the April 1996 accord was openly endorsed by both Damascus and Beirut. Since neither has publicly committed to a cease-fire against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms, the Lebanese and Syrian governments have not staked their credibility on its observance and Hezbollah has no face-saving justification for continued inaction.

For the time being, at least, the Lebanese regime is likely to rein in Hezbollah out of pure self interest. Prime Minister Hariri is making a concerted effort to drum up international support for holding the Paris II donor conference in February or March. Until then, both he and the Syrians know that the United States can and will derail the conference if the border with Israel heats up.

Notes

  1 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 29 December 2001.
  2 This list, compiled every two years, was virtually unchanged from the one issued in 1999. US citizens are prohibited from providing assistance to organizations on this list and American banks are required to freeze their assets.
  3 Al-Anwar (Beirut), 25 October 2001.
  4 Al-Safir (Beirut), 18 October 2001.
  5 The Daily Star (Beirut), 19 October 2001.
  6 The Jerusalem Post, 24 October 2001.
  7 The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 November 2001.
  8 Agence France Press, 7 December 2001 and 9 December 2001.


2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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