According to a recent statement by US Ambassador in Lebanon Dorothy Shea, the US sanctions against former minister and head of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in Lebanon Gebran Bassil are not necessarily going to be the last sanctions against a Lebanese political figure.
It has become more evident that these sanctions, applied via the Magnitsky Act, will focus more on corrupt politicians, whether they are Hezbollah’s allies or not.
As a result, the FPM’s political cover provided to Hezbollah has subsided, and the Iran-backed group can no longer easily do its bidding in the government under the guise of FPM policy. The group has also become more politically isolated, and with Bassil shunted from the international community, Hezbollah is fast losing much-needed allies.
US President-elect Joe Biden is likely to focus more on cracking down on corruption and urging for reforms, and Biden’s foreign policy team is expected to coordinate with European countries, including France, which will have implications in Lebanon.
This sort of US foreign policy will impact not only the FPM, but it will likely affect the entire Christian political community and, in turn, the whole of Lebanon’s political scene.
The main message the US sought to send with these sanctions is that Bassil’s strong alliance with Hezbollah, which has protected him from scrutiny and covered his shady and illegal deals, is no longer acceptable.
Although the Magnitsky Act is very clear about targeting individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved with significant corruption – not institutions or organizations – Bassil, who is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, is hardly regarded in Lebanon as an individual. He represents a very large Christian party and within it, a big group of affiliated businessmen and a vibrant financial community.
As a result of the sanctions, this business community has today become worried. Any obvious financial affiliation with Bassil or his political party – not only Hezbollah – could be deemed too risky because links with the FPM head could jeopardize their business and financial transactions.
Without the support of this business community, Bassil’s ambition to become president has been challenged and his plan to win the 2022 parliamentary elections has become complicated. And when Bassil loses his ability to politically mobilize the Christian community and the Christian business community, Hezbollah will also lose the Christian cover that Bassil and Aoun have provided to Hezbollah since they signed the Memorandum of Understanding, or what is known as the Mar Michael Accord, in February 2006 that solidified the FPM-Hezbollah alliance.
Over the past few years – primarily after his father-in-law became president – many Christian businessmen congregated around Bassil, hoping to benefit from his rise to power and ties to the business community. Subsequently, this bolstered Bassil and Hezbollah’s access to business and financial markets. However, with Bassil sanctioned, the rewards do not seem to be worth the risks.
It is not surprising then that a large part of the Christian community reacted positively to the recent calls by the Lebanese Patriarch Bechara Al-Rai to maintain Lebanon’s neutrality in the face of regional conflicts. There’s obviously a rising awareness that the Bassil-Aoun-Hezbollah alliance, which has dragged Lebanon into regional conflicts, has only harmed Lebanon and the Lebanese people, especially the sectors that are in desperate need of Western assistance.
Today, sectors where the Christian community thrive – including the banking sector, hospitals, and universities – have been especially hard-hit by Lebanon’s ongoing crisis. The financial prospects for these sectors have been dampened, thereby further weakening their political power and influence.
This Christian business community that previously aligned itself with Bassil is now in a precarious situation where being close to someone like Bassil will only further isolate the crisis-struck sector from international markets – mainly in the West and the Gulf States.
For Hezbollah, this is a major shift. Although the group has built a vast network of alliances across all Lebanese sects and parties, Bassil and the FPM are still their major ally.
Without Bassil’s support base and political relevance, Hezbollah will lose its main Christian political cover, which in practical terms, could mean a major loss in the parliament and in the government. As for other alliances, Hezbollah might be left with only those who are already isolated from the international community, such as the Lebanese Marada Party’s leader Suleiman Frangieh and the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime’s ally Wiam Wahhab who is a Lebanese politician. These groups, unlike the FPM, do not have a large support base that would be able to guarantee a considerable Christian parliamentary bloc that would provide the cover that Hezbollah has become accustomed to.
Hezbollah’s dilemma is real, and to maintain its political leverage, the Iran-backed group needs the cover the FPM has provided.
No other Christian leader has the political clout that Bassil has, making replacing him impossible, according to Hezbollah’s calculations. But now, Bassil has become irrelevant. Hezbollah will have to face the fact that they have lost their Christian cover for good, and that they have already been contained, at least politically. While Hezbollah also loses support from all sects, including its own Shia community, it will be difficult for Hezbollah to secure another big win in the 2022 parliamentary election.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.
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