The newly formed government in Lebanon, which has given the Islamist movement Hezbollah key ministries, raised concerns that the country could face sanctions imposed by the U S that prohibit material support for the Iran-backed group.
The US warned Hezbollah on Friday February 1st against upholding up its agenda with its new position, which includes key posts in Lebanon’s government, including in the ministry of health.
American officials have voiced their concern over how Hezbollah will use the ministry to provide state-subsidised health care and jobs to its supporters, and possibly even its fighters, which will help it endure punishing American sanctions that have made it difficult for the group to offer its usual social services to its Shiite Muslim base.
“We call on the new government to ensure the resources and services of these ministries do not provide support to Hezbollah,” said a State Department spokesperson, Robert Palladino.
As the new Lebanon cabinet convened on Thursday January 31st, after nearly nine months of political deadlock, the assistant US Treasury secretary for terrorist financing, Marshall Billingslea, warned the group that if it tried to “exploit these ministries to funnel money or undertake other activities in support of their terrorist agenda, then we will have significant concerns.”
It was expected that Hezbollah would gain influence within the Lebanese government after the group and its allies expanded their share of seats in the country’s parliamentary elections last May, significantly weakening the Western-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his bloc. Now that it has won control of the health ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the government, its ability to embed itself within Lebanese state institutions, has made it both a bigger target and a more elusive prey for the US, which has designated it a terrorist group.
Lebanon’s political system awards government posts and patronage spoils to politicians of different religious affiliations, in order to maintain a balance among the country’s 18 officially recognised religious sects. There is a long history of ministers of all political stripes using the health ministry to provide free or subsidised health care to supporters, according to a story published by The New York Times, Saturday February 2nd.
There is a strong assumption that Hezbollah fighters wounded in the Syrian civil war might well be the beneficiaries of such a situation, which would be unwelcome news for the US.
“This is yet another example of Hezbollah openly holding Lebanon’s security and prosperity hostage,” said Rachel Mikeska, a spokesperson for the American Embassy in Lebanon. She added that the US was “prepared to take whatever actions are necessary to protect the interests of the Lebanese people.”
The spokesperson declined to say what those actions might be. Analysts said this could be translated into reducing funding to the health ministry and squeezing other international donors, like the World Health Organisation, to do the same. The US could theoretically impose sanctions on Lebanese hospitals, preventing the export of American medications to Lebanon, or cut off American military aid to the Lebanese Army.
On the other hand, it is unclear what a Hezbollah grouping might do at the health ministry that the Trump administration would consider a violation of the sanctions law Trump signed in October. According to analysts, Hezbollah may have chosen Dr Jamil Jabak, a 63-year-old doctor with close ties to Hezbollah, as health minister to try to avoid that very problem, direct sanctions on the ministry. Dr Jabak is not a member of Hezbollah, but is said to have once served as a personal physician to the group’s leader.
“Would Washington consider free health care to Hezbollah members provided by the health ministry as an example of ‘significant financial support?’” wrote Michael Young, a political observer and journalist with the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, in an opinion column last year. “It’s difficult to say that it would never do so.”
Usually, the US’s various interests in Lebanon often end up in conflict, including when it comes to Hezbollah. It wants to counter Iran and its proxies, but also maintain Lebanon’s stability as the war in Syria continues to burn. It also wants to battle terrorism, and push back on Russian influence in the Middle East.
Though Washington has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation for its actions around the world and its close relationship to Iran, the group has also infiltrated itself into legitimate parts of the Lebanese state, making it difficult for the US to target it without also affecting the rest of the country.
“The debate in the US about Lebanon is always about which to prioritise and how to balance these competing priorities,” said Firas Maksad, the director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that leans toward a pro-Saudi Arabia stance and anti-Iran policies.
Some anti-Iran hard-liners argue that “this is Iran on the Mediterranean, that Hezbollah uses the Lebanese political elite and the Lebanese government as a thin veil for political cover,” said Maksad.
Those voices, which include some Republicans in Congress and members of the Trump administration, may push for cutting off aid to the Lebanese Army—a significant source of support to the armed forces—as well as to the health ministry.
However, those who oppose such views prefer a more measured response.
Given Lebanon’s floundering economy and political instability, Maksad said: “they don’t want the whole place to come down.” The prospect of economic collapse greatly increased pressure on the country’s political factions to strike a power-sharing agreement.
On the other hand, they also raised a flag that reducing military aid would leave room for Russia, which has expanded its influence across the Middle East, to make inroads in Lebanon.
On a large scale, sanctions and financial tools, have come to be the primary hobgoblin used by the US against Iran and its regional partners. On a trip to Beirut last week, Billingslea urged Lebanese officials to exclude Hezbollah from involvement in the country’s banking and financial sectors, and called for reforms that would allow the Lebanese authorities to block and freeze accounts associated with the group. But as Hezbollah continues to expand its influence in Lebanese institutions, sanctions may prove to be an overly blunt tool, hitting legitimate government services and civilians, in addition to the party.
Hassan Nasrallah, the organisation’s secretary general, said the group did not intend to meddle with Lebanon’s balance of power, he stated in a televised interview on Saturday, February 2nd.
But Maksad noted that Hezbollah had managed to forge pacts with Christian and Sunni politicians, as well as Shiite ones, then held up the formation of the new government until the prime minister, a Sunni, agreed to allow Hezbollah’s Sunni allies into the cabinet—an unmistakable mark of its strength.
Of the new faces in the 30-seat cabinet, it was Jabak, the physician leading a ministry closely watched by the West, who attracted the most immediate attention.
“I don’t belong to any political party,” he said in a radio interview on Friday, February 1st.