US and France follow different paths on dealing with Hezbollah terrorist group
Article RadarTHIS ARTICLE CONNECT:
As both France and the US push for a new Lebanese cabinet to pursue long-sought reforms, stark differences are emerging in the two countries’ outlook on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Nothing better illustrated these divergent paths than Washington’s decision Tuesday to impose sanctions on two former Lebanese government ministers it accused of providing material and financial help to Hezbollah. It even warned of further measures targeting the Iran-backed Shia group.
US officials said Washington was coordinating with France on Lebanon but voiced criticism over a meeting French President Emmanuel Macron recently held with a prominent figure of Hezbollah, seen as a terrorist organisation by the United States.
The US and France’s competing foreign policy visions are playing out vividly as they head separate diplomatic tracks following Beirut’s port explosion last month that led the government to resign.
While France seems willing to compromise with the Iran-backed party, viewing it as a “political reality” to be reckoned with, the US refuses to engage with the group, instead seeking to contain it with wide-ranging sanctions.
According to experts, Washington sees Hezbollah as a Tehran proxy and regional spoiler while Paris focuses on resolving Lebanon’s internal crises and defusing its tensions.
France has taken the lead in attempts to influence the course of events in Lebanon, with French President Emmanuel Macron making repeat visits to the stricken Lebanese capital to help negotiate a new government and reform drive.
Macron’s government has been consistent in its demands for urgent reforms and an end to corruption, tying them to the provision of financial aid to Beirut. But the French president has also been relatively flexible in working with Lebanon’s entrenched political elite, including Hezbollah figures often blamed for fueling corruption and destabilising the country by maintaining weapons outside of state control. Lebanese demonstrators have rejected deals they fear would keep Lebanon “a hostage” in the hands of the Shia militias. Macron has also been criticised for coordinating his moves in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s sponsors in Tehran.
During his last visit to Beirut, the French head of state met with lawmakers that included Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc chief Mohammad Raad, before all sides agreed to form a new government headed by incoming Prime Minister Mustapha Adib.
Macron’s unannounced meeting with Raad was first revealed by French journalist Georges Malbrunot in a report in Le Figaro, which called the face-to-face meeting “unprecedented.” A previous report by the same journalist stated that Macron had threatened to impose sanctions on Hezbollah if they did not cooperate with France’s reform efforts.
Macron lashed out at the sensitive news report, personally rebuking Malbrunot, a prominent French reporter who was once held hostage in Iraq, at a public news conference for what he called “serious, unprofessional” and “irresponsible” reporting. The Elysee Palace later followed up with a statement saying Malbrunot should have reached out to the French presidency to react to the information.
The dispute highlighted the sensitivity of Macron’s diplomatic outreach in Lebanon, particularly involving high level Hezbollah figures.
France’s willingness to work with Hezbollah sets it apart from other Western governments, particularly the US, which has labeled the group in its entirety as a “terrorist organisation” and demanded it give up its weapons and be excluded from any future Lebanese government.
Paris distinguishes between Hezbollah’s political and military factions, recognising the former as a legitimate entity.
Analyst Karim Bitar told AFP that France “wants to maintain a channel of dialogue with Hezbollah in order to prevent the destabilisation of Lebanon.”
However, others have argued that France’s unwillingness to blacklist Hezbollah has more to do with its desire to retain unique access to a powerful militant element of its former protectorate.
Last month, the Washington-based Atlantic Council ran an article arguing that France was doing more harm than good by granting Hezbollah legitimacy, pointing to the Shia group’s long history of militia recruitment, terror involvement and money laundering.
“Macron’s belief in France’s special responsibility to Lebanon is evident. If he wants to help the people suffering under Hezbollah there, Macron should follow the German example, and lead a ban of Hezbollah at home,” wrote senior nonresident fellow Jeremy Stern in the article.
Not all French political circles share Macron’s belief that Paris should remain open to Hezbollah either. A group of prominent French figures urged the government on the eve of Macron’s last Lebanese trip to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and to not block European Union efforts to blacklist the militant group.
“Without a firm condemnation of Hezbollah, France’s action, in trying to lend support to an old friend in the region, would be futile,” wrote the signatories, who included former Prime Minister Manuel Valls and former Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.
Senior US officials visiting Lebanon have given similar warnings about the Shia group’s potential participation in future government lineups.
US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, who was visiting Lebanon last week, said that Hezbollah “cannot be trusted” to follow through with reforms, a Shia figure he met with told AFP. “Hezbollah has been given ample opportunity since 2005 to really involve itself in the state and has not changed its behaviour,” the source reported Schenker as saying.
In addition to fostering unrest within Lebanon, the US accuses Hezbollah of helping carry out Iran’s divisive regional agenda with a vast network of proxy militias, further isolating Lebanon on the international scene.
“As the Lebanese people suffer through a crushing economic crisis, Hezbollah’s exploitation of Lebanon’s financial system, its degradation of Lebanese institutions, and its provocative and dangerous actions threaten the Lebanese people and jeopardise Lebanon’s financial well-being and potential recovery,” US Secretary Mike Pompeo said last month.
But while the US has publicly taken a firm stance against the Shia group’s participation in a future government, analysts say Washington, focused on domestic challenges and an upcoming presidential election, could allow France a margin of manoeuvre as it negotiates with the key players.
At the end of the day, however, Washington has the capacity to lift or impose sanctions, giving it decisive veto power over the course which these manoeuvres will eventually take.
Source: Arab Weekly