Editor’s Note: Azmina Siddique is a Policy Advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Hezbollah’s announcement of its impending “victory” in Syria may be a reaction against US sanctions against Iran, but the threat it poses is no less real.
Hezbollah remains one of the most capable terrorist organizations in the world, which intends to continue expanding its reach. The international community needs to take a unified step to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety and curtail its global crime and terror network before it is too late.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on Tuesday announced that it would “very soon” celebrate victory in Syria, where the Iran-backed group’s militia are fighting alongside pro-Assad forces.
The announcement came days after the US imposed new sanctions on Iran, following US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
The mounting political and financial pressure on Iran’s already struggling economy from renewed sanctions will no doubt have an impact on Hezbollah’s activities. And Nasrallah’s latest message shows that Hezbollah is gearing up for a fight.
Even in the days before the sanctions were announced, Hezbollah – in a show of force – published a picture of a squadron of its drones on its al-Ahed news site to highlight its continuing “message of resistance”. Given Hezbollah’s history of deadly attacks and military success, these are unlikely to be empty threats or mere posturing.
Hezbollah, which emerged amid the Lebanese Civil War, embraces the principles of Iran’s Islamist ideology. The group sees armed struggle not only as justified, but as a sacred imperative and has implemented this vision with devastating success, from the 1983 bombing of US Marine barracks in Beirut to a 2012 attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria.
Much of its violence has targeted Jewish communities, including the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina, which killed 85 people. Today, Hezbollah acts as a proxy for Iran in Syria, where it has its largest deployment outside of Lebanon (between 7,000 to 10,000 fighters), challenging US and Israeli strategic regional interests.
Iran is estimated to fund Hezbollah by up to $200 million a year and financial pressures on Iran from the sanctions is likely to make Hezbollah ramp up its international funding activities.
This mainly involves arms and tobacco smuggling, and narcotics trafficking from South America to and via Europe, bringing the threat out from the Syrian theater of conflict and into the international stage.
A global network of shell corporations, criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking and phantom charities worth more than $1 billion a year also finances Hezbollah’s global terrorist activities.
And this network is increasingly extending to Europe; a recent undercover US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigation identified a UK-based Hezbollah associate who was carrying out money laundering as part of the group’s international drug trafficking network.
Yet, despite this rap sheet of criminal and terror activities, no EU member state apart from the Netherlands currently proscribes Hezbollah in its entirety. Instead, these countries separate between the group’s so-called “military” and “political” wings, banning the former but not the latter.
The decision to only partially proscribe Hezbollah no doubt reflects the complex nature of the organization. Hezbollah has a strong political presence in Lebanon, where the group and its allies hold more than half of parliamentary seats. And although not officially “in power,” the group and its allies hold a substantial grip over ministries and state institutions under the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while also providing social welfare as a means of gaining support.
But seeing the group’s political and terror activities as distinct from one another is a mistake. Even its leader Nasrallah has implied there is little distinction between the two “wings” and its deputy leader Naim Qassem has stated “we don’t have a military wing and a political one”. As Daniel Byman, a Professor at Georgetown, puts it: “Hezbollah’s social welfare organizations feed recruits to its military, and it uses its political power in Lebanon to shield itself from international pressure to disarm…the group’s political and military leadership is unified and should be considered part of one cohesive organization”.
This false distinction has enabled supporters and funders of Hezbollah to coalesce openly across Europe. In the UK, protesters at the annual “anti-Zionist” Al Quds Day march openly fly Hezbollah flags bearing the group’s trademark machine gun emblem in the largest demonstration of its kind in Europe. As the group faces increasing financial pressures, it will look to draw on its international support base and expand its illicit activities globally to fund its campaigns of violence in Syria and the wider Middle East.
In the UK, policymakers from across the major parties have recognized this and have called for a change in UK law.
British Labour Party Member of Parliament Joan Ryan and Conservative Party Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat have been among those calling for the group’s full proscription, including during a parliamentary debate on the issue earlier this year that received cross-party support.
EU governments have no doubt worried that full proscription of the group would hinder political and diplomatic engagement with Lebanon. However, the United States, Canada and the Netherlands have banned Hezbollah in full, and continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with Lebanon. The UK should follow their lead and encourage our international partners, including in the EU, to follow suit. It is time to ban Hezbollah in its entirety.