The Trump administration has imposed Treasury sanctions on one of Lebanon’s most influential politicians as it intensifies attempts to defang the militia and political powerhouse Hezbollah.
The move against Gibran Bassil for alleged corruption was announced on Friday as Trump’s chances of re-election continued to dip, and marks a sharp escalation of efforts to limit Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanese affairs. Crucially, it is a direct challenge to the country’s president and Bassil’s father in law, Michel Aoun, who Washington has considered an ally.
The decision is likely to derail attempts to form a new government aimed at stymieing an economic and social freefall in a country where fear and poverty is rising daily. It is also a pointed threat to other members of a political class that their personal interests are at stake if they stall on demands made of them in the dying months of the Trump presidency.
The allegations of corruption levelled at Bassil could have been made against officials at all levels of government. The former foreign minister, however, was central to a power-sharing pact in 2016 that cemented Hezbollah’s muscular role in Lebanese life and led to Gulf states, which had long acted as benefactors, turning their backs on the ailing nation.
Ever since, Bassil had become a deeply divisive figure disliked in equal measure for his alleged role in siphoning state funds away from energy reforms and for giving cover to what has broadly been seen in Washington and the Gulf states as a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular had blamed current prime minister designate, Saad Hariri, for striking a deal with Bassil and Aoun, which consolidated the regional role of Hezbollah’s backer, Iran.
In recent months, Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has switched focus to Hezbollah, which remains the most important arm of Tehran’s foreign policy. Senior Trump officials have acknowledged that they would attempt to use their remaining time in office to move harder against Iranian regional influence than any earlier administration.
In a statement, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said: “Throughout his government career, Bassil has become notorious for corruption and has been linked to the purchase of influence within Lebanese political circles.
“While minister of energy, Bassil was involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies.
“Through his corrupt activities, Bassil has also undermined good governance and contributed to the prevailing system of corruption and political patronage that plagues Lebanon, which has aided and abetted Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities.”
Faysal Itani, deputy director at the Centre for Global Policy, said: “Bassil is definitely not the only prominent non-Shia politician to give cover to Hezbollah. But as far as sanctions are concerned he is a proverbial low-hanging fruit. Going after his father in law would be seen locally as an attack on the Christians as a whole, and on a sitting president. This is a potent US signal of the cost of being too friendly with Hezbollah. As a bonus, this is a nice boost to Hariri politically as he tries to put a cabinet together, which Bassil’s party has boycotted.”
Bassil responded to the move on Twitter, saying “sanctions didn’t scare me and promises didn’t tempt me”.
“I will not turn against any Lebanese national … and I’m not saving myself to destroy Lebanon,” he added. “I have grown accustomed to injustice.”