After a year and a half of conflict, and despite some 40,000 deaths, the world still stands impotent to end the bloodshed in Syria. With Russia and China reviving their recurring role as United Nations Security Council obstructionists, concerned countries have been forced to seek out meaningful measures of their own. And while the United States and Europe have been unified on sanctions designed to cut off funding to the Assad regime, the Europeans have left one main artery of support pumping. It’s time for the European Union to designate Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and in so doing, cut off one of the only reliable lifelines Assad has left.
According to the U.S. State Department, Hezbollah has since the early days of the current unrest been providing “training, advice and extensive logistical support” to the Assad regime. America’s U.N. ambassador Susan Rice has called Hezbollah operatives “part of Assad’s killing machine” who “prop up a murderous and desperate dictator.” And in a newly released letter, a group of 20 Syrian dissidents, activists and rebels, some of whom are still risking their lives in Syria, have themselves implored the EU to designate and sanction Hezbollah for its “cynical and barbaric support of a mass murdering regime.”
While Hezbollah draws the bulk of its funds from Iran and Syria, it freely and openly raises financial support on European soil, with grave consequence. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah himself has said that EU designation “would dry up the sources of finance” and “end moral, political and material support” to Hezbollah.
While the Netherlands has joined the United States, Canada, and Australia in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety, it is the sole European country to have done so. United Kingdom policy draws a specious and dangerous distinction between Hezbollah’s “military” and “political” wings, barring activity only of the former within its borders. The UK plays along with Hezbollah’s ruse to pose internationally as a social and political movement at our peril; as the newly released Syrian letter underscores, “the fact that Nasrallah is the sole political leader of Hezbollah… should be proof enough to end this nonsensical distinction.”
Arguments against an EU designation of Hezbollah center primarily around two stated concerns. The first is that there is not enough “evidence” of Hezbollah’s link to terror. The Cypriot foreign minister has stated, “Should there be tangible evidence of Hezbollah engaging in acts of terrorism, the EU would consider listing the organization.” In the words of the French foreign minister, “[A]n organization can be placed on the terrorist list only when there is a legal case against them, which is not currently the case.” The ultimate irony here of course is that Hezbollah was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. and French barracks in Beirut, resulting in the deaths of 58 French soldiers along with 241 American servicemen, and that a Lebanese man with links to Hezbollah was arrested just this past July for attempting to carry out attacks on Israelis on Cypriot soil.
The second is the contention that any move to designate Hezbollah might provoke the group into playing a destabilizing role in Lebanon; as if Hezbollah hasn’t already succeeded in this aim through maintenance of what is effectively a private army and “a state within a state” at odds with collective Lebanese self-interest; as if a diverse spectrum of Lebanese political leadership hasn’t repeatedly demanded Hezbollah’s disarming in recent years. Hezbollah’s decision last month to fly a drone over Israel was characterized by former Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora as “implicating Lebanon in regional and international struggles,” and by opposition leader Saad Hariri as “uncalculated adventures Hezbollah wants to drag Lebanon into.” The internal Lebanese situation has been further complicated by the killing of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, a devastating attack which was almost certainly retaliation for his anti-Assad credentials and the role he played in implicating Damascus and Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and in the arrest of a pro-Assad former minister working with Syria to plot terrorist attacks and sow sectarian chaos in Lebanon. Indeed, many analysts suggest that Hassan’s assassination is the most significant event to rock the country since Hariri’s and threatens to raise the curtain on yet another devastating Lebanese civil war.
At a time when the disconnect has never been greater between the international community’s commitment to the “responsibility to protect,” and its feeble motions to prevent the continued butchering of the Syrian people, a bold EU move to formally brand Hezbollah what it is – a terrorist organization – should be a given. Banning Hezbollah would deal an additional blow to the Iranian regime of which Hezbollah is a proxy, serve as a riposte to its violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding activity in Lebanon, send a message surrounding its role in the murder of Rafik Hariri, demonstrate a stand against an organization that has killed Americans, Israelis, Europeans, and Syrians, and denote the only appropriate response to terrorism carried out within Europe itself. Further, it would send a much-needed moral and material boost to the Syrian people, those bravely fighting and dying each day at the hands of a brutal regime. In the frustrated and battle-weary words of the letter’s signatories, it’s the least the EU can do.
Ilana Decker is the North America director of the Henry Jackson Society, a transatlantic think tank headquartered in the UK specializing in foreign and international security policy.