The disastrous August 4 explosion of an ammonium nitrate shipment in Beirut brought Lebanon’s political and economic turmoil to the fore in US media, with reports that it’s likely “the blast will make the spiraling economic situation worse” (Vox, 8/5/20). That Lebanon is enduring a major financial crisis was made clear; that US sanctions regimes have contributed to the problem was obscured in the coverage. However, America’s economic strangulation of Iran and Syria is harming Lebanon, as are similar policies directed against the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Both a political party and a militia, Hezbollah has long been detested by the US foreign policy establishment, which blames Hezbollah for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, an attack that forced the Reagan administration to cut short its intervention in the country. That Hezbollah partners with Iran; that it compelled one of America’s regional proxies, Israel, to end its 18-year occupation of Lebanon; and that it successfully fended off Israel’s merciless 2006 assault on Lebanon’s civilian population, makes Hezbollah even less popular in Washington.
The US’s Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 expanded economic sanctions on the group and its TV channel, Al-Manar, to keep the party from accessing banks and to undermine its financial operations. The move “add[ed] pressure to Lebanon’s already struggling banking sector, further burdening the country’s economy,” wrote the US-based Mideastern news site Al-Monitor (1/14/16). The law followed “many other decisions designed to tighten the noose around Hezbollah’s neck and block it from the global banking system.”
In August 2019, the US placed sanctions on Lebanon’s Jammal Trust Bank (JTB), which the Trump administration said supported Hezbollah. In Lebanon, JTB “is known for microfinance products targeting marginalized communities, who are disproportionately Shia” (Financial Times, 8/30/19). This was not the first time US sanctions compelled one of Lebanon’s banks to shut down: The same happened in 2011 when the US claimed that the Lebanese Canadian Bank, one of the five most important banks in Lebanon (The National, 6/27/20), had ties to Hezbollah.
Last October, the Trump administration intensified sanctions on Hezbollah “and institutions linked to it to unprecedented levels,” targeting elected members of Lebanon’s parliament and warning that the sanctions “could soon expand to [Hezbollah’s] allies, further deepening [Lebanon’s] economic crisis” (AP, 10/4/19).
It’s not only US sanctions against Hezbollah that harm Lebanon, but also the US’s economic wars against Iran and Syria. US government sanctions on Iran have curtailed Tehran’s ability to give money to Hezbollah, which uses it not only for military purposes but also for “the once ample spending programs that underpinned the group’s support among Lebanon’s historically impoverished Shiite community” (Washington Post, 5/18/19). Because of the sanctions on Iran, these programs “have been slashed, including the supply of free medicines and even groceries to fighters, employees and their families.”
A 2017 report from BLOMINVEST, the research branch of a major Lebanese bank, noted:
Because of the sanctions on Syria, Lebanon could not benefit from the capital and business outflows out of Syria after the eruption of the Syrian war in 2011. Starting that year, businessmen began to flee Syria with all the cash and wealth they could bring in order to establish their businesses elsewhere. Unfortunately, US sanctions came in March of 2011 and another batch was added in August, and therefore Lebanese banks were reluctant to accept any transfer or deposit from Syrian nationals.
The US’s Caesar Act sanctions against Syria, which recently came into effect, are designed to keep Syria from re-building, and are already helping worsen the humanitarian situation in the country (FAIR.org, 7/14/20). The Caesar Act also is “likely to have a significant impact [on Lebanon] due to [Lebanon’s] historically close economic relationship with Syria,” Al-Monitor (7/8/20) reported. The act’s effects are expected to be especially acute in Tripoli—where “shortages are already wreaking havoc on the city’s impoverished and crisis-hit residents”—which has long sought to “become a regional logistics and economic hub and to act as a gateway for investment in Syria’s post-war reconstruction.”
Lebanese and Syrian people also engage in large amounts of informal trade, and the Caesar Act will almost certainly increase the volume goods moved in this fashion as official trade becomes harder to conduct, which isn’t ideal, (Al-Jazeera, 6/19/20) reported:
Since those goods are subsidised—i.e., purchased by the Lebanese government with foreign currency and sold at a discount to the Lebanese people—an increase in smuggling will further deplete Lebanon’s already squeezed US dollar supply…. The rush on US dollars saw the value of both the Syrian and Lebanese currencies plunge sharply on parallel and black markets in recent weeks.
That happened before implementation of the Caesar Act, which “could bleed Lebanon for years to come.”
However, a consumer of US media could be forgiven for not knowing about Washington’s role in Lebanon’s economic difficulties, given the scarcity of news articles describing direct and less direct but substantive sanction effects. According to searches run with the media aggregator Factiva, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal collectively published 202 articles between the August 4 Beirut explosion and August 21 that contained the words “Lebanon” and variations on the word “economic” or “financial.” Zero of these noted that sanctions are part of the economic trials that Lebanon is facing.
When the sanctions are mentioned, it was in misleading ways. Consider, for example, this sentence in the Post (8/12/20): “Washington has placed sanctions on Hezbollah and designated it a terrorist group.” Nothing in this formulation connects the sanctions to Lebanon’s economic problems, despite the obvious evidence they have contributed to them.
A Journal (8/12/20) report on how the US intends to use sanctions to “shape” Lebanon’s next government, so as to “ensur[e] that Hezbollah doesn’t retain its hold on government decisions,” noted that US sanctions on the party are already in place, and also mentions that Lebanon has a “failing economy.” Yet, like the Post article, this Journal piece failed to link the existing sanctions and Lebanon’s economic hardships, though it does point out that the US plans to take advantage of Lebanon’s suffering, writing that “the US sees the political atmosphere as a unique opportunity for the sanctions to prod Lebanon.”
In another story in the Journal (8/13/20), the sole use of the word “sanctions” is in the phrase, “the US is considering the use of sanctions against some Lebanese leaders.” That misleadingly makes it sound like sanctions are a theoretical possibility rather than a policy that, as shown above, has been in place and having deleterious effects for years—and that they can be surgically directed to impact only leaders and not ordinary citizens.
While corporate media coverage acquits the US of wrongdoing in Lebanon’s economic calamity, it also uses the August 4 explosion as an occasion to beat up on Hezbollah, providing ideological legitimation for Washington’s efforts to interfere in Lebanon’s affairs, through such tactics as the very sanctions US media are concealing.
Bloomberg’s Hussein Ibish (8/5/20) assured readers that “most Lebanese will assume the ammonium nitrate belonged to [Hezbollah], for use in Syria and against Israel.” He declined to share how he divined the future thoughts of “most Lebanese,” but, as the late Boston University professor Augustus Richard Norton’s research indicates, Hezbollah is “embedded in the social, political and economic fabric [of Lebanon], and supported by large numbers of people who are not to be dismissed as fanatic and brainwashed.” In May 2018, Lebanon’s most recent election, Hezbollah, along with groups and individuals aligned with it, won at least 70 of 128 seats in the nation’s parliament (Reuters, 5/22/18). Thus it’s far from clear that “most Lebanese” will take the exclusively negative view of Hezbollah that Ibish’s article does.
Another Bloomberg (8/5/20) piece, this one by Bobby Ghosh, discussed international aid going to Lebanon, saying that “there is a danger that aid money will be diverted from its intended purpose—whether to line the pockets of Lebanon’s famously venal politicians, or worse, furnish the coffers of Hezbollah, which acts as Iran’s catspaw across the region.” Hezbollah, like every major political force in Lebanon, has been a target of some of the large protests roiling the country, but Ghosh’s claim that aid going to Hezbollah is “worse” than it being stolen seems absurd when one considers that even the New York Times (8/14/20) acknowledges that the group “built a vast network of social services, including hospitals, schools and youth programs.”
Characterizing the group as “Iran’s catspaw” is reductive. Amal Saad, a Lebanese academic who has published extensive peer-reviewed scholarship on Hezbollah, finds that the group “has in fact a vast degree of autonomy from Iran,” and that the proxy model is “over-simplistic in that it reduces a complex, multidimensional relationship that is bound by ideational and normative factors to a materially driven, transactional relationship.” Instead, she concludes:
The cultural and historical ties with Iran, shared religio-political ideology and strategic culture, and the power modalities that Hezbollah contributes as a regional subpower, signal an organic and interdependent relationship between ideological comrades and brothers-in-arms.
The Washington Post (8/11/20) published an article by Firas Maksad, headlined “Reforming Lebanon Must Start by Putting Hezbollah in Its Place,” that depicted the group as a “two-headed monster—a powerful militia . . . that combined the roles of legitimate political party with a ruling mafia feeding off the state.” Maksad made clear whose interests he had at heart, writing that
under US and French auspices, a new Lebanon can be born in accordance with its people’s aspirations. Together, Washington and Paris have great leverage, particularly given Lebanon’s dire need for long-term financial assistance.
The US and France, he suggests, should take advantage of Lebanon’s grim economic situation to bring the country under their “auspices.” That can only happen if the “two-headed monster” is, in Maksad’s profoundly imperialistic language, “put…in its place.”
Evidently it is of no concern to Maksad that there might be Lebanese reluctance to see their country back under French management, considering that France carved up the borders of Syria and Lebanon and spent more than two decades controlling the countries.
Nor is the Georgetown professor concerned with those Lebanese who may not be enthusiastic about placing the country under US tutelage, in view of America enabling multiple Israeli invasions of Lebanon—as well as Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. In its most recent mass aggression, in 2006, Israel killed at least 1,100 Lebanese people, the vast majority of them civilians, and injured over 4,000 while displacing an estimated 1 million, with the US rushing to provide Israel the means to do so while the slaughter was taking place.
Some Lebanese may also object to US “auspices” based on Washington’s contribution in recent years to their country’s economic suffering. But Maksad can count on his audience not having heard about that campaign from US media.
*(Top image: Teams from numerous countries contributed to the search and rescue efforts in the heavily damaged port area. Credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Follow/ Flickr)
*This article was originally published on fair.