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U.S. sanctions weaken Hezbollah's allies in Lebanon

Supporters rally during a Mawlid celebration, which marks the birth anniversary of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on October 29. One attendee holds photos of Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (R) and Shiite Houthi movement leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Photo by Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE
Supporters rally during a Mawlid celebration, which marks the birth anniversary of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on October 29. One attendee holds photos of Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (R) and Shiite Houthi movement leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Photo by Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Recent U.S sanctions targeting Hezbollah's close political allies have ​also affected the Iran-backed group's alliances and weakened its longtime supporters in Lebanon, analysts say.

Sanctioning Gebran Bassil, head of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, for his role in corruption under the Magnitsky Act on Nov. 6 showed Washington aimed to maintain its "maximum strategy pressure" to force behavior change in Lebanon.

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Bassil was the third high-ranking political official to face U.S. sanctions for supporting Hezbollah and its policies. In September, Youssef Fenianos, a former transport minister, and Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister, were blacklisted for engaging in corruption and making political and economic favors to Hezbollah. More high-ranking officials from different sects are expected to soon be placed on the sanctions list.

"The sanctions worked well, as they shook Hezbollah's alliances and greatly weakened its allies," Amin Kammourieh, a journalist and an independent political analyst, told UPI.

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Bassil, leader of the largest Christian bloc in parliament and whose FPM group has had a political alliance with Hezbollah since 2006, insisted that U.S. sanctions do not scare him and defied Washington for proving his implication in the country's corruption. However, the damage is done.

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"After the sanctions, more of Bassil's followers are moving away from him, and the split within the group is growing," Kammourieh said. "Moreover, Christian businessmen who have interests in the U.S. or hold the U.S. nationality and have been supporting him are now saying why should they be involved and started to distance themselves from him."

Antoine Nasrallah, a prominent FPM member who was expelled along with two others in 2016 for leading a "revolt" after refusing to vote for Bassil as Aoun's successor to lead the movement, said he broke away because the group is no more the one he dreamt of to rebuild the country.

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Discontent with Bassil has been mounting within FPM over the way he was running the group and monopolizing decisions and over his populist approach and circumstantial alliances.

The FPM most benefited from its alliance with Hezbollah when it imposed the election of Aoun as president in November 2016 after 29-month vacuum in the presidency. In return, Aoun secured a Christian cover for Hezbollah's policies and activities. Such an alliance hasn't been in Lebanon's interests. It has pushed away its traditional Arab and Western allies, which are refusing to rescue it from the economic crisis unless urgent reforms are adopted and Hezbollah is kept out of any new government.

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"Many will not vote anymore for the FMP. This has started with the 2018 parliamentary elections and is set to increase after the sanctions, especially among the wealthy ones who have been supporting the group with money and efforts. Those are scared," Nasrallah, who is among dozens of former FPM members preparing to announce a new political movement next month, told UPI.

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He said the high-ranking officials who were sanctioned may not change and would maintain their positions but their supporters and those funding them will. He noted that the Lebanese political leaders are showing that they are strong "but this is not true...they are afraid."

"We want to rebuild the country with non-corrupt officials who would pull us out of the economic, social and financial abyss," Nasrallah said.

Gebran Bassil, former Lebanese foreign minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, was the third highest-ranking political official to face U.S. sanctions for supporting Hezbollah and its policies. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

However, Lebanese are well aware that getting rid of the corrupt political class and changing the situation in their country is no easy task and will not happen overnight. It will be a slow, painful process to break the corrupt class and contain the heavily-armed Hezbollah.

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"In Lebanon, no revolution or coup d'état can work. To make some changes, we only have the democratic way, through parliamentary elections," Nasrallah said.

Despite the acute economic crisis, Hezbollah was still able to support its popular base, paying its fighters and covering its expenses in U.S. dollars generated from illegal activities and funds sent by Iran. It responded to Washington's sanctions that target drying up its resources and blacklisting its allies by hardening its stance.

According to Adib Nehmeh, an expert in sustainable development, the U.S. sanctions would affect Hezbollah if it succeeds in drying up its funding sources so that it can no longer pay its people's salaries.

"The sanctions are stronger and more harmful. Blacklisting Khalil and Fenianios was not a coincidence, for it targeted a mechanism that secured financial resources to Hezbollah from state revenues," Nehmeh told UPI. "Now, state revenues have dropped sharply and Lebanon is not to receive any international aid, so Hezbollah will be affected and the Americans are fully aware of that."

Sanctions alone are not enough to save Lebanon from its worst crisis since its 1975-90 civil war and will not yield desired results, some experts say.

"Sometimes, sanctions work -- like against the apartheid system in South Africa. But in Lebanon's case, this is not enough. I am not sure Washington will succeed in dragging the Lebanese parties to where it wants," a Beirut-based international lawyer told UPI on the condition he not be identified.

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With no plan in place to help change the political class, the approach of outside parties in dealing with Lebanon's crisis will remain "unproductive," he said.

"They are still dealing with those who led to Lebanon falling apart," he said, calling for the ouster of Aoun, "for he is the head of state" and should shoulder the responsibility of the country's collapse.

Lebanese thus cannot bet on foreign assistance to get out of their mess. They would need to break the internal balance of power through a mixture of popular pressure, more disputes among the ruling powers and new social forces joining the system, Nehmeh said.

Moreover, Hezbollah cannot keep Lebanon on hold, waiting for the United States and Iran to resume negotiations that would hopefully ease the pressure and consecrate its role in the country.

"Lebanese cannot bear anymore such a disastrous situation. Hezbollah will be blamed openly and will be held responsible," Kammourieh said. "What will the group do when the price of a chicken will equal a month's salary?"

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