Last Thursday while the Lebanese were anxiously awaiting the results of the US presidential elections, where many watched understanding the outcome would determine the fate of the region and their country, news broke of looming sanctions against Gebran Bassil, former foreign minister and the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
For many Lebanese, especially those who went to the streets a year ago, the sanctioning of Bassil was a long-awaited response to the public outcry to hold the entire political class accountable for decades of corruption, which is responsible for their current economic downfall.
The sanctioning of Bassil is no ordinary matter, not merely because it punishes the head of Lebanon’s biggest Parliamentary bloc, but rather because these sanctions were passed under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets corruption and serious human rights abuse around the world. Typically, sanctions specifically target Hezbollah for their terrorist activities.
According to the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “The systemic corruption in Lebanon’s political system exemplified by Bassil has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people.”
For the longest time, Bassil has carried himself as untouchable, claiming that his supposedly pro-Western Christian credentials and the fact that his political party is amply represented in Parliament makes him immune to US sanctions, which traditionally and exclusively target Shia supporters of Hezbollah.
The new sanctions shattered Bassil’s image as a statesman that he has put forward over the years. But more importantly, the new sanctions shattered his presidential ambitions, a position he has coveted and wishes to occupy once his father-in-law the 85-year old Aoun’s term expires.
Aoun and Bassil, through their infamous memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah back in 2006, gave the Iran-backed group the much-needed Christian cover for them to maintain their weapons arsenal and would later allow them to venture further and spearhead Iran’s regional expansion project when war broke out next door in Syria in 2011.
In exchange, Bassil benefited from Hezbollah’s political and military muscle and gradually, yet aggressively, setup up his clientelist networks in key ministries, including in telecoms, energy and water, and the foreign ministry. The FPM and Hezbollah fait accompli came in 2016 when Aoun was elected president and Bassil was allowed to impose a new electoral law that gave him and his allies a 2018 parliamentary majority.
This watershed act from the Trump administration strikes at the heart of the alliances Bassil has formed with minorities across the region and the local factions he has headed.
For the longest time, the FPM has labored to maintain a regional alliance of minorities between themselves and Iran and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which they believe can protect the Maronite and other minority group from the supposed hegemony of Sunni Islam. This farcical school of thought has attracted many supporters in the West and in Washington, D.C. where some believed that Bassil and Assad were the only line of defense against extremists who were bent on purging the area of minorities.
In fact as soon as the sanctions against Bassil were released, his first reaction on Twitter was to underscore the injustices that the Christians of the East have undergone and that such measures will never change his position that says: “We the Christians of the East are destined to carry our cross every day ... to survive.”
In a press conference, Bassil blasted the US administration and defiantly declared that he was being penalized not for his corruption, but for his refusal to break ties with Hezbollah, even though the Americans tried to lure him with bribes and incentives.
Bassil also ridiculed the Trump administration which does not understand that, “We are friends and not agents,” and that these sanctions against him are an attempt to uproot the Christians of the Levant – something that been attempted time and again but failed, according to Bassil.
The American Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea quickly noted that Bassil himself “expressed willingness to break with Hezbollah on certain conditions, expressing gratitude that the US had gotten him to see how the relationship is disadvantageous to the party.”
Regardless of the implications of these sanctions on Bassil, one thing is certain: The upcoming Joe Biden administration will not backtrack on these sanctions. The new US administration might even use sanctions more liberally, simply because sanctions issued against Iran and its corrupt allies typically receive bipartisan support in the US congress.
Friday November 6, 2020 will forever be a day remembered in Lebanon’s history as the beginning of the day of reckoning for the entire political establishment that hopes their corruption passes as statecraft as they hide behind the weapons of Hezbollah. US President elect Biden and his new administration have a real opportunity to push that day of reckoning for Lebanon’s ruling class forward, if they can continue what the Trump administration has started.
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