Europe: Hezbollah’s new headache

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization by the European Union puts the powerful Lebanese group on a path of confrontation with “the old world.” This route might bring forth individual designations and place Hezbollah under scrutiny across Europe, while still granting both sides flexibility in maintaining communication channels and proper contact with the political structure.

For those following the case, there was no surprise in the EU’s move on Monday. The Europeans have been actively considering the step after the Burgas bombing last August in which the Bulgarian authorities accused Hezbollah openly of perpetrating it. Labeling the military wing as terrorist, however, is more than what some in the Lebanese government had anticipated. The EU could have stopped at just designating key individuals in the party or those allegedly involved in the Bulgaria bombing.

Syria’s role

The Burgas bombing offered the Europeans the legal ground they needed to blacklist Hezbollah, as did the Cyprus verdict last March indicting a party operative was behind planning attacks against Israel. It is Hezbollah’s role in Syria, however, that helped drive the political argument behind the listing. The Europeans for decades have sought to take a moderate and impartial stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict, speaking up against Israeli Settlement expansion and just this week promising new guidelines to label all imports from these Settlements. European condemnations of Israeli wars have been loud and clear during the last Gaza invasion, and even during the 2006 July war in Lebanon where the European Union rejected the air and sea blockade and found Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s kidnappings “unjustifiable.”

Beyond the psychological effect that expands Hezbollah’s problems beyond Israel and the U.S., the EU’s decision will put Hezbollah under much more scrutiny across Europe.

Joyce Karam

Hezbollah’s role in Syria, however, created a new political context for the party inside Lebanon and in the region. It also heightened European fears of fueling Sunni-Shiite tensions across the Middle East, at a time when Europe is also abstaining from arming the Syrian rebels. Hezbollah’s history of fighting against Israel was something that Europe largely accepted or at least lived with, but the party’s involvement in a sectarian conflict that is increasing tension in the region and radicalizing Jihadists inside Europe as well, was a harder pill to swallow.

Even among Hezbollah’s supporters, questions are asked about the new direction of the party in fighting those it calls “Takfiris” instead of Israel. The party, while still very influential inside Lebanon, is more ideologically cornered in a sectarian box than ever before. In places like Sidon and Tripoli, traditional Sunni allies of Hezbollah have been keeping their distance and shying away from public defense of the party following its intervention in Syria.

Likely Impact

Beyond the psychological effect that expands Hezbollah’s problems beyond Israel and the U.S., the EU’s decision will put Hezbollah under much more scrutiny across Europe, and could be followed by individual designations against members and possible funders of its military wing. On the ground, the blacklisting legally means an end for European officials meeting with Hezbollah’s military members such as head of internal security Wafiq Safa. European officials will have to keep their meetings with political members such as Mohammed Raad or Nawaf Moussawi. It is unclear if the EU’s move would terminate historical back channel efforts that countries like Germany and Switzerland took to negotiate prisoner exchange with Israel or a ceasefire in 2006. The thin line between Hezbollah’s military and political wings could offer both the EU and the Lebanese party a flexibility around the decision. Nevertheless it won’t impact diplomatic relations with Lebanese governments, which since 2005 have included political members from Hezbollah.

As for Hezbollah itself, the party’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah appeared defiant in his response yesterday, saying that the decision makes the “Europeans complicit in any Israeli aggression against Lebanon.” Hezbollah’s leader ridiculed it by asking Europeans in colloquial Lebanese to “steep it in water and drink it.” The decision will unlikely deter Hezbollah from fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria but it might force it to work more aggressively to contain domestic repercussions and possible economic costs. The party cannot afford more isolation in the Lebanese arena, and with the EU’s decision and possible GCC sanctions, allies such as the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun might be more tempted to reconsider the relation. Aoun has been having key disagreements with Hezbollah on the electoral law, military appointments and the new government formation.

Militarily, Hezbollah appears to be consumed in the fighting in Syria and will unlikely jeopardize new fronts now it’s in South Lebanon. It can however make life harder for the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) of European origin by refusing communication. Hezbollah also can choose to stop cooperating with European intelligence in fighting al-Qaeda.

Europe’s blacklisting, while still granting both Hezbollah and Europe flexibility in maintaining political relations, marks an escalation and further isolation for the party, at a time of unprecedented challenges.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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