By Kareem Shaheen
BEIRUT -- The blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing is a message warning the party over its involvement in Syria and activities in Europe and would only have a limited effect, experts and analysts said Monday. Few saw a distinction between the group’s military and political wings, saying it would be prohibitively difficult to target military cadres and assets, and arguing that the party had few financial resources in Europe that could be subject to sanctions.
But they said the decision to blacklist the military wing would make it easier to carry out investigations in concert with European intelligence agencies into Hezbollah’s fundraising and militant activities.
“They distinguish between the military and political wing when in reality there isn’t much distinction,” said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme in Chatham House.
“But it’s a way of creating constructive ambiguity to maintain engagement at the same time as sending a strong message.”
The EU maintains contact with Hezbollah on a variety of issues, including the activities of UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force on the border with Israel, and on joint projects between the EU and Lebanon.
Shehadi argued the distinction made it possible for the EU to continue talking to Hezbollah, likening the measure to the U.K.’s decision to distinguish between the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which fought a protracted insurgency against British rule, and its political wing, Sinn Fein, allowing negotiations to end the fighting.
“The introduction of a separation between the military wing and the political wing gives a way out,” he said.
Hezbollah itself does not distinguish between its two wings.
“This is long overdue,” said Matthew Levitt, a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department. “Hezbollah has believed that it could mix militancy, terrorism, crime on the one hand, and politics and social welfare on the other.”
“They felt that by virtue of being involved in politics they got a free out-of-jail-card and they could blow up buses of civilians in Bulgaria and try to do so in Cyprus, partner with Iran in Syria, and much more,” said Levitt, who testified recently before the EU Parliament in support of blacklisting all of Hezbollah.
But a senior Arab diplomat in Beirut, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, said this distinction meant the decision would have no impact on the ground.
“You cannot distinguish between the civil and military wing of the party,” he said. “How would you define that this person is a member of the military wing? And does the military wing have any exposed assets that you can restrict or freeze? It is very difficult to implement this decision.”
Levitt said the decision would have no impact on Hezbollah finances in Europe since there are few known assets belonging to the military wing there, but he said it would open up avenues for intelligence operations investigating the party and would send a clear deterrent message.
European countries have been reluctant to carry out “proactive” intelligence investigations into Hezbollah since it was not labeled a military organization, said Levitt, who is a senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. He has also written a book on the party called “Hezbollah: The Global Footprints of Lebanon’s Party of God.”
Such investigations will now be carried out if a link can be established to potential Hezbollah militancy, he said: “It is very likely that Hezbollah will curtail the amount of its activities in Europe having to do with militancy or fundraising because they know that these investigations are going to be run.”
Further, he said, Hezbollah could no longer treat Europe as a “near abroad” where it could carry out such activities.
He said Hezbollah was already under enormous pressure due to its involvement in Syria and the accusations against four of its operatives by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Domestically, the Arab official said the decision was likely to worsen the political deadlock in Lebanon, increasing what he termed “Hezbollah’s siege mentality” and compelling it to hold onto its political positions.
The party is now unlikely, for instance, to allow the government formation to go ahead without it being represented in the Cabinet.
Experts differed on the impetus and timing behind the decision.
Shehadi said the decision was the result of the party’s implicated in the Burgas bombing last year targeting Israeli tourists, and was part of an ongoing process that began after the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s former military chief, was killed in Damascus in 2008, prompting the party to acknowledge his military role. He is accused of involvement in a number of attacks including the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.
The Arab diplomat said the timing of the decision was likely the result of a combination of pressure by the U.S. and Israel to compensate for a recent decision by the EU to boycott products made in West Bank settlements.
He said it appeared to be influenced by Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, rather any potential role for the party in the bombing in Burgas.
“I wouldn’t back something like this if there is no strong evidence that the party is involved in terrorist activity on European territory, and until now I can’t say there is enough evidence for an accusation,” he said.
The diplomat said that Hezbollah officials repeatedly said in meetings they had no assets or financial activity in Europe, so that any such freeze would have no impact on the party.
Legally, the decision will represent a greater challenge to the Lebanese government than to Hezbollah, said Chafic Masri, a professor of international law. He said the Lebanese government would have to help the EU distinguish between military and civilian cadres in the party.
Further, only the EU is legally empowered to add individuals to the list.
“It is challenging because now anyone who may be elected as a parliamentary member or selected as a minister will remain subject to the de facto approval of the EU,” Masri said. “This is not just confusing but embarrassing as well to the Lebanese government.”