In a surprising, albeit overdue move, the US Department of Treasury sanctioned earlier this month Gebran Bassil – Lebanon’s former foreign minister and the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun - for his role in endemic corruption as well as his support for Hezbollah, senior government officials stated. “He represents everything wrong with the broken Lebanese system,” a senior government official told reporters. The sanctions came under corruption-related sections in the Magnitsky Act.
A statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Bassil had been “involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies.” Asked if the decision could be undone, another official said any individual who is designated may challenge. “But there is no mistake here. It is not typical for these types of designations to be undone,” the official said.
The official also noted that if Bassil were to change his behavior and support for corruption in Lebanon, “it’s certainly something the [US] government will consider.”
BASSIL’S PARADOXICAL REACTIONS
Although Bassil’s initial response was defiance and blame, saying that “sanctions have not scared me,” and that he is not corrupt, his challenging of the US move turned into a completely different rhetoric a week later – hoping that the US would indeed reconsider if his behavior changes. In an interview with Al-Arabiya’s al-Hadath TV channel, Bassil said that his party – the Free Patriotic Movement - has problems with Hezbollah that could lead to a separation between the two, but that breaking the alliance remains an internal decision.
But the most significant part of the interview was when he discussed Hezbollah’s disarmament, saying “If the Americans give us any commitment that preserves Lebanon’s security and stability, so that we have a country with a military balance, then I will be ready to discuss with [Hezbollah] and persuade it to abandon its arms.” Bassil reiterated that he was not against peace with Israel.
But change in statements are not change in behavior, and all Bassil can do today is talk, defend himself, and say that he is ready to change his behavior. In fact, to overturn these sanction, Bassil will have to prove that he is not corrupt, and that the proof that the US Treasury has against him are false. This is going to be almost impossible to achieve, and his hopes that a Biden administration will just overturn the Trump administration sanctions – including his – are just wishful thinking. That’s the beauty of the Magnitsky Act.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME
Despite the element of surprise, these sanctions did not come from a vacuum. The context and timing are very significant. Bassil is not only Hezbollah’s main Christian ally in Lebanon, he has been the target of the Lebanon’s street protests that erupted all over Lebanon in October 2019. All Lebanese – from all sects and regions – chanted against Bassil and pinpointed his corruption and misuse of state institutions and his positions at various ministries. Therefore, these sanctions were considered good messaging to the Lebanese people who are still suffering from the worst financial crisis that ever hit Lebanon, and which has corruption at its roots.
Bassil has also covered for many of Hezbollah’s illicit activities in Lebanon and the region, including financial misconduct – such as smuggling – and acts of terrorism – such as Hezbollah’s regional military operations. His behavior in covering Hezbollah’s precision missiles operations in Lebanon, his advancing of Hezbollah’s agenda as a minister of foreign affairs, and his many acts of protecting Hezbollah within the Lebanese political and diplomatic arena.
Bassil has always thought he was untouchable, because he is the head of a large Christian party in Lebanon, and also because he is the son of law of the president. Therefore, he had so far managed to play the game of protecting Hezbollah, while at the same time telling the US what it wants to hear – that he cannot face Hezbollah on his own and that their alliance is a mere strategic move to protect Lebanese Christians. However, this game that he played for almost two decades, has finally come to a halt when the US decided that enough is enough and that it is time for actions instead of words. And as expected, Bassil could only deliver words, never actions.
Although the sanctions targeted Bassil personally, the political repercussions extend to Bassil’s father in law, President Michel Aoun, and Bassil’s own presidential ambitions and plans. The former minister of foreign affairs thought that his alliance with Hezbollah will guarantee him the presidency, exactly as his father in law’s alliance with the terrorist group got him to Baabda palace. These ambitions are now gone as it is going to be extremely difficult for Lebanon to have a US-sanctioned president, unless Lebanon decided to completely isolate itself from the world and global financial system, an unlikely scenario considering the dire financial crisis hitting the country today.
On a more general level, these sanctions indicate bad news to his father in law, the president, as well to the FPM party officials and members. As long as Bassil remains the head of the party, all of those under his leadership will be tainted, both inside Lebanon and internationally. But these sanctions are also a very clear message to all the corrupt political elite in Lebanon who still believe they are untouchable, mainly those who still think that supporting Hezbollah and Iran’s regional agenda will benefit them.
Hezbollah’s allies – from all sects – today realize that the US can use the Magnitsky Act to sanction any corrupt politician, whether they are Shia, Sunni or Christian. No one will be safe from it. This also means that the US – with this administration and the next one – will not turn the blind eye on corruption, and Lebanon will not be bailed out financially without serious reforms.
HEZBOLLA’S COVER TERMINATED
This spells very bad news for Hezbollah. With the Lebanese people seeing Hezbollah as the authority – instead of a resistance movement – these sanctions also open the door wide for Hezbollah’s allies to try to jump ship, before their turn comes.
Hezbollah has been trying very hard for decades, and spending much of its resources and funding, to make sure that the group has a national cover – not only a Shiite one – and that Lebanese parties and people from all sects support its agenda and vision for Lebanon. Without its allies, Hezbollah not only loses this national cover; it also loses its power within state institutions. Without its allies, Hezbollah does not possess the parliamentarian and cabinet majority it needs to make decisions and advance its interests in Lebanon.
It’s still too early to see how the wind blows and if it will push some of these allies to jump ship, but it is clear that it is a good first step in this direction. If anything, Bassil’s recent maneuvering and attempt to distance itself from Hezbollah are sufficient indication of where these allies stand today.