Europe's Half Measure

Lebanese women wave Hezbollah flags while holding a picture of the movement's chief Hassan Nasrallah in the western Bekaa Valley on May 25, 2013. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanese women wave Hezbollah flags while holding a picture of the movement's chief Hassan Nasrallah in the western Bekaa Valley on May 25, 2013. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

During his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman was asked whether his country supported British calls for dialogue with the “political wing” of Hezbollah. “Hezbollah itself does not differentiate between a political and a military wing,” he told journalists.

Yet that does not mean the United States has no channels of communication with the militant group. The Lebanese speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, is one such conduit. Britain, for its part, often holds direct talks with the party: its ambassador in Beirut meets with Hezbollah's lawmakers and ministers.

The EU designation of Hezbollah's “military wing” as a terrorist organization comes along the same lines. Unlike the Americans, many European countries have maintained direct links with Hezbollah. And given that Hezbollah’s military apparatus lingers in the shadows, it is hard to tell who exactly will be hit by the EU sanctions.

As such, the EU designation will have little to no effect on the party. Perhaps that was the intention behind the designation in the first place: take a stance against Hezbollah for its role in Syria, but make sure that the European position does not completely break with the group.

The European rationale behind its new—yet, crucially, mild—position on Hezbollah might be primarily connected to the presence of the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), first deployed in 1978 and later enlarged after the 2006 war. UNIFIL is based in southern Lebanon, a stretch of land bordering Israel and dominated by Hezbollah.

The UNIFIL peacekeeping force is formed of more than 10,000 personnel from thirty-seven nations, fourteen of them European. Participating countries might fear retribution against their UNIFIL staff, should they take too tough a stance on Hezbollah. Past attacks on UNIFIL substantiate such thinking.

Inside Lebanon, the designation should not be expected to dislodge Hezbollah or undermine its overwhelming power and control of the state and its institutions. In fact, Lebanon's executive and legislative powers expressed opposition to the EU designation and even instructed the country's diplomatic missions to lobby against it in European capitals.

Similarly, the designation should not be expected to affect the behavior of Hezbollah, which has been accustomed to being shut out of international forums ever since it made the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list in 1999. Since then, the group has been blacklisted by international organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as individual countries including Canada and the Netherlands.

Hezbollah was designed to operate outside of the international network of banks and other organizations, while its leaders have always limited their travels to its few allied countries, principally Iran.

Hezbollah has also developed parallel finance structures, mainly to collect funds from the Lebanese diaspora. From time to time, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the US Department of the Treasury, singles out Lebanese citizens with connections to the party and slams them with sanctions, thus cutting them off from the international banking system. But finding all of Hezbollah’s accomplices has proven to be a difficult task—and even if the group's activity is squeezed out of the world's network, Hezbollah can always revert to cash transactions, as was evidenced by its reimbursement of supporters for the destruction that they suffered during the 2006 war with Israel.

The EU designation of Hezbollah's “military wing” as a terrorist entity might not affect the party, but it certainly says many things. Most importantly, it says that the world—including Europe—is watching Hezbollah's increased militancy in neighboring Syria and around the world, and is not happy.

There were also times, like in 2005, when Washington said it was willing to talk to Hezbollah if the group renounced violence, and in 2009, when London suggested starting dialogue with the group's “political wing.” At the time, world capitals showed an interest in solving outstanding disagreements with Hezbollah through dialogue. The new round of EU sanctions, however, suggest that any compromise between the world and Hezbollah is becoming more of a distant memory.

Third, while the EU sanctions might not be a big deal for Hezbollah, they might serve as a warning and suggest that the role of the militant group is back on the discussion table. Now that a first round of sanctions has been slapped on the party, more rounds might be in the making—and then may eventually include both the “political” and “military” wings.

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