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Analysis

Sanctions: For the US, ‘all of them’ does not mean ‘all of them’

Sanctions: For the US, ‘all of them’ does not mean ‘all of them’

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil during a joint press conference in March 2019. (Pool/Reuters/Jim Young)

BEIRUT — Did the US give the revolutionaries a present two weeks ago by sanctioning Gebran Bassil, the most despised man by the thawra? Yes, it did. Yet this present could well be poisoned.

The US sanctioned the Free Patriotic Movement leader pursuant to Washington’s Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a first in Lebanon. The US Treasury Department justified this measure on the grounds of “Bassil’s role in corruption in Lebanon,” adding that he “has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people.”

Washington thus gives the impression of adapting its politics on Lebanon to the rhetoric of the revolutionaries. The fight against corruption has indeed been at the heart of the Lebanese protests.

As if to drive the message home, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed that this decision falls within the framework of the US support of “the Lebanese people in their continued calls for reform and accountability.”

So is Uncle Sam the revolutionaries’ best ally? This is doubtful. Bassil, the son-in-law of the president, faces “significant allegations” of corruption during his tenure in the various posts he had held in the Lebanese executive. Washington, however, did not provide specific evidence to substantiate its accusations.

The US has also never sanctioned any Lebanese politician opposed to Hezbollah. This comes as a godsend for the FPM leader, who can argue that he would not have been blacklisted had he severed ties with the Shiite party. Should we conclude from this that Bassil is the victim of a witch hunt? Once again, this is very doubtful.

The FPM leader, who claims to be the paragon of the fight against corruption, is probably not as pure as the driven snow. The US has certainly built a strong case against him. It’s all very well for the Christian leader to pose as a victim and to remind people that, unlike him, the other political leaders have been in power for decades.

So, are the party leaders close to what was called the March 14 camp beyond reproach when it comes to corruption? Are they beyond reproach because, from an American point of view, corruption is tied to the Shiite militia? Or is it simply because they are opposed to Hezbollah?

“US sanctions are not an ethical issue. They are an instrument of foreign policy,” argues a Lebanese politician well-established in Washington.

The US has made subduing Hezbollah its main objective on the Lebanese political scene in recent years. It is with this logic that Washington sanctioned members of the party and people in connection with it, and more recently some of its allies, including Youssef Fenianos of the Marada Movement and Ali Hasan Khalil of the Amal Movement.

While the US Treasury Department made no reference to the Shiite party, it is also in this logic that Bassil is targeted today. This, however, does not mean that he is innocent of the charges he is accused of, or that Washington has nothing else on its mind but to “politically murder him.” It is simply that the Americans have a policy, like all the powers, which is necessary and by nature, partisan.

This policy is far removed from the slogan that is so dear to the revolutionaries: “Killun yaani killun,” Arabic for “All of them means all of them.” These revolutionaries are rather in favor of a policy of sanctions against the country’s leaders, but they also quite rightly fear that such a policy will be used politically if it targets certain political parties only.

‘Against American imperialism’

US sanctions are anything but a joke or an unexpected twist. They are enough to seriously jeopardize the political future of the Christian leader. But they should not be of any concern for the revolutionaries, at least for now. They might even have the opposite effect.

Across the world, politicians who are blacklisted by the US tend to exaggerate direct confrontation. This helps them address hard-core supporters through extremely effective populist rhetoric, which goes along the lines of: “I am being sanctioned for defending the interests of my nation against US imperialism.”

But Bassil cannot afford to cut ties with the US, an indispensable partner for the land of cedars, where anti-American sentiments, although popular among certain segments of the population, are not necessarily expressed by the majority.

Yet, his speech after the sanctions announcement already echoed some of that rhetoric. He might have to harden his positions to save what little he has left. Why would he make compromises now in cabinet formation or reform implementation when he is already on the US blacklist and is well-aware that this will not be enough to remove him?

Why would he cut ties with Hezbollah now, when his political alliance with the Shiite party, although it has driven him to the wall, is the only slim chance he has left of making it to Baabda?

For the revolutionaries, the main political divide is between the old world, to which the entire political class belongs, and the new one. The US has understood the message and has even used it to serve its own objectives. But this comes at the risk of bringing back to the forefront of the political scene the other major breach that divides the country: the divide between those who are pro-Hezbollah and those who are against it. A divide whose outcome is not yet foreseeable, while the country urgently needs reforms.


This article originally appeared in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.


BEIRUT — Did the US give the revolutionaries a present two weeks ago by sanctioning Gebran Bassil, the most despised man by the thawra? Yes, it did. Yet this present could well be poisoned.

The US sanctioned the Free Patriotic Movement leader pursuant to Washington’s Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a first in Lebanon. The US Treasury Department