Any US plan to sanction allies of Lebanon’s parliament speaker Nabih Berri over his longstanding ties with Hezbollah and Iran would backfire, sources close to the veteran politician have said, reacting to The National’s report that Washington was considering such a move.
US officials told The National last week that measures being considered could target Mr Berri’s Amal party as well as its financial backers, and that the issue had been discussed during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Lebanon.
“Such a move, if confirmed, would be crazy,” a source close to Mr Berri told Lebanese daily Al Akhbar on Monday, saying Hezbollah and Amal represent most of Lebanon’s Shiite community in parliament.
No official data exists on Lebanon’s population, but the country is believed to be roughly one-third Christian, one-third Sunni and one-third Shiite, although some experts believe that the Shiite community has become dominant.
“This move would not hurt Hezbollah or Amal. On the contrary, it would make their alliance against the US stronger,” said the source, warning that it would increase hostility towards “the American administration’s arrogance”.
There has been no official response from Amal, but two MPs and Mr Berri’s spokesman arrived in Washington on Sunday for several days of talks with US officials aimed at minimising the scope of any sanctions.
Targeting Mr Berri, who has been the parliament speaker for a record 27 years and enjoys strong ties with most Lebanese political parties, would represent the first step to targeting state institutions and even the presidency, according to the report in Al Akhbar, one of Lebanon’s leading newspapers and considered to be close to Hezbollah.
“The US want to say that since the main political parties have chosen to stand by Hezbollah and defend it, their fate will be no better than Hezbollah’s fate,” the report said.
The US considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and has targeted it with sanctions as part of its efforts to counter Iran, which backs the Shiite group.
This has not stopped Hezbollah from becoming one of Lebanon’s main political parties. In addition to being allied with Amal in local elections since 1992, Hezbollah is also backed by the country’s Christian president Michel Aoun.
Thanks to its powerful militia, Hezbollah has become a regional force, supporting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in his eight-year war. However, the group seems to have begun feeling the pinch of international sanctions. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for supporters to donate money last month.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, the Lebanese ambassador to the US seemingly refuted reports of increasing pressure on Lebanon. “The unfree press has started cheering for new sanctions”, Gabriel Issa said, castigating “false news transmitted by false sources”.
But according to Al Akhbar, American envoys to Lebanon this past year have become increasingly threatening towards Mr Berri. “They asked in camouflaged language about his opinion about sanctions, their impact on Lebanon and more specifically on the Amal Movement.”
Mr Berri reportedly “annoyed” Mr Pompeo during a meeting by saying he had “invented the resistance”, referring to Amal and Hezbollah’s fight against Israel in South Lebanon.
Sources close to Mr Berri also linked The National’s report on potential US sanctions against Amal to regional politics, saying it was “not coincidental” the information was published while Mr Berri was in Qatar, after visiting Iraq.
In a speech in Doha, reported by Al Akhbar, Mr Berri berated US President Donald Trump’s decisions to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights and Jerusalem as its capital. He concluded that “what is taken by force … can only be recovered in two ways: unity and resistance”.