x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hizbollah militia placed on EU terrorist blacklist

Members face asset freeze and travel ban for backing Syria's Bashar Al Assad. Ferry Biedermann reports from Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM // The European Union yesterday placed Hizbollah's military wing on its terrorism blacklist because of its role in terror plots in Europe and the Syrian civil war.

The move allows Europe to freeze assets and paves the way for travel bans on members of the Lebanese Shiite militia.

Hizbollah, backed by Iran, has sent about 5,000 fighters to Syria to prop up the Assad regime. They led the recapture last month of the rebel-held town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border.

The movement is also accused by Bulgaria of an attack in the Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. A criminal court in Cyprus found a Hizbollah member guilty in March of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island. Both countries are EU members.

But it was Hizbollah's support for Bashar Al Assad that shifted the attitude of EU members, who agreed unanimously to implement measures against the group's armed wing.

Speaking after the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: "We encourage the policy of dissociation from the conflict in Syria. But due to concerns over the role of Hizbollah, we have agreed to designate its military wing on the list of terrorist organisations."

A spokeswoman said that both the attacks and Hizbollah's role in Syria had been taken into consideration.

The British foreign secretary William Hague said the agreement was a clear message that the EU stood against terrorism. The UK supports the rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime and was one of the driving forces behind the blacklisting.

European officials were yesterday studying which Hizbollah members such measures would apply to, as the way in which group is organised makes no formal divisions between its various wings.

Members of the European bloc have blacklisted only the armed wing to safeguard ties with Lebanon, where Hizbollah holds 12 seats in parliament.

Lebanon's prime minister, Najib Mikati, said Lebanon regretted the EU's measure.

"We will follow up on the issue through diplomatic channels, while we wish the EU countries had carried out a careful reading of the facts and sought out more information," he said.

"Lebanese society, in all its components, is keen to abide by international law and to maintain excellent relations with EU member states."

The GCC said this month it was reviewing "legal, administrative and financial matters" linked to possible sanctions against Hizbollah.

Many European countries had been reluctant to blacklist Hizbollah, or part of it, for fear of destabilising Lebanon or losing influence in the region.

The step also follows EU guidelines issued last week that are seen as putting pressure on Israel over its settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, yesterday praised the EU's action against Hizbollah's military wing, but other politicians said it did not go far enough.

The prime minister, Bejamin Netanyahu, welcomed the decision but criticised it for being limited to Hizbollah's military wing.

"As far as the state of Israel is concerned, Hizbollah is one organisation, the arms of which are indistinguishable," he said.

The former Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, also said blacklisting Hizbollah's military wing was "insufficient".

Hizbollah sees itself as a resistance group against Israel. The Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed in May to help Mr Al Assad, who is also backed Iran, to prevail.

Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, said last week that Hizbollah was a "main component of Lebanese society" and appealed to the EU not to blacklist it. Hizbollah is the leading partner in the March 8 bloc that dominates Lebanon's outgoing government, and is also involved in attempts to form a new one after Mr Mikati submitted his resignation in March.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, doubted that the EU decision would have great impact in the country. "It is not a complete game changer in terms of how Lebanese politics takes place, nor even how the West, whether the US or Europe, deals with these issues," he said.

The decision could complicate the negotiations on a new government but other issues, such as Hizbollah's involvement in Syria's civil war, are much more likely to affect such talks, he pointed out.

As for Hizbollah itself, the movement has other worries, including its "existential fight" in Syria, said Mr Salem. "They have huge concerns. This will certainly be a secondary issue."

The US and several other countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia, had previously listed Hizbollah or part of it as a terror organisation, but US cooperation with the Lebanese government and army has continued, even with Hizbollah as part of the ruling coalition.

In his statement after the decision, Mr Hague emphasised the importance of maintaining good relations with Lebanon. "The Designation will do nothing to affect the EU's and the UK's strong relationship with, and support for, Lebanon," he said.

A draft of the decision was reported to include the provision that "restrictive measures to combat terrorism does not prevent the continuation of dialogue with all political parties in Lebanon".

Claude Moniquet who heads the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, a think tank in Brussels, said that while the decision was probably the maximum that could be achieved at this point, banning the military wing "doesn't make a lot of sense, even though it's a beginning".

Apart from the difficulties in separating the military wing from the rest of the movement, implementation of specific steps against Hizbollah military commanders would still depend on political decisions in member countries and could still take a long time to materialise.

The listing as a terror organisation would make it possible "to identify leaders of the military wing of Hizbollah", he said.

"These people could be forbidden to travel in Europe and their assets in Europe could be frozen", he said.

Hizbollah has denied involvement in the Burgas attack in Bulgaria and denies plotting to attack Israeli tourists in Cyprus. Mr Moniquet dismissed doubts about the link to Hizbollah in these and other plots. "From the intelligence point of view there is no doubt that it was a Hizbollah attack, for us in the intelligence community it is very clear," he said. "We had actually other affairs with Hizbollah in Europe for years, it is nothing new for us."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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