European Council on Foreign Relations

Bulgaria points finger at Hezbollah

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The Bulgarian government today released the findings of its investigation into the July bombing in Burgas which killed six people, including five Israeli tourists. As expected, the findings point a direct finger at the Lebanese militant cum political organisation Hezbollah. Given that the terrorist attack took place on European soil, the EU can rightly be expected to impose collective sanctions on Hezbollah.

Nonetheless, while justified, the step may actually prove counterproductive so far as guarding the fragile stability of Lebanon is concerned. It may also strengthen the hand of Hezbollah ally Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria. As I argued in an oped for the International Herald Tribune last September, Hezbollah has not, despite expectations to the contrary, aggressively sought to cement its control over Lebanon over the past two years and has only offered limited material support to the beleaguered Assad regime.

"Europes willingness to date to resist U.S. and Israeli pressure to place Hezbollah on its terrorism list and under a sanctions regime has been critical to maintaining the groups moderation and Lebanons uneasy calm. European engagement has provided Hezbollahs leadership with reassurance that there will be political room for their group in the post-Assad era. This has been key to preventing a pre-emptive offensive by Hezbollah to secure its position, particularly given mounting international pressure against Iran and Syria, its two regional backers."

Given the prevailing regional and international dynamics it would probably be wrong to overstate Europe's influence on Hezbollah's thinking at the current moment. Nonetheless, EU sanctions, reflecting an intensifying international push against the movement at a time when their Sunni opponents are also on the regional ascendancy, may help provoke a more aggressive turn. Fearful of losing domestic manoeuvrability Hezbollah may look to secure a firmer grip on the domestic levers of power. Cornered, it may also increasingly tie its own survival to that of the Assad regime, resulting in increased material support to Damascus to the detriment of the rebel cause.

In short, while sanctioning the movement may be the right European response to a clear act of terrorism, it may also add fuel to the flames of the intensifying political and sectarian conflict tearing across the Levant.

1 comments

Dr. Matthew Levitt 13th February 2013 at 08:02pm

While several European countries express concerns that designating Hezbollah could destabilize Lebanon, the fact is that Hezbollah today is doing more to destabilize Lebanon than anyone else.  In July 2006 Hezbollah drew Israel and Lebanon both into a war neither country wanted.  In 2008 it took over parts of Beirut by force of arms, leading to the deaths of several fellow Lebanese citizens.  Its activities in Syria have drawn that sectarian conflict across the border into Lebanon.  Hezbollah members stand accused by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and key suspects in the assassination of General Wissam al Hassan.

The fact that the U.S. State Department has fingered Hassan Nasrallah as the one who is personally directing Hezbollah’s activities in Syria underscores the fact that one cannot make false distinctions between Hezbollah’s political and military wings.  Nasrallah’s lieutenant, Sheikh Naim Qassem, has iterated on several occasions—including in his book—that there is no distinction between any of Hezbollah’s wings: “We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other… Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority,” Qassem explained.
It may seem pragmatic policymaking for the EU to designate Hezbollah military and terrorist “wings” without designating its political wing, but such an action would severely limit the action’s ability to prevent the travel of Hezbollah operatives or counter Hezbollah’s extensive fundraising activities in Europe, neither of which are done in the explicit name of its military “wing.”  Moreover, selective designation can also have the unintended consequence of giving undeserved legitimacy of other Hezbollah wings. And, while some European countries would prefer to designate only specific Hezbollah operatives as individuals, these are hollow measures done just for show since and have little effect.  But an EU designation is critical, not only to send Hezbollah a clear message that it can no longer muddy the waters between politics and terrorism, but because it would empower EU member states to open terrorism-specific investigations into Hezbollah activities, something many cannot or will not do today, and something that is critically needed given the group’s resumption of terror attacks in Europe.

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