x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

GCC to scrutinise Hizbollah interests

Gulf Cooperation Council ministers "condemned Hizbollah's blatant interference in Syria" and "decided to consider taking action against Hizbollah's interests in the GCC countries".

ABU DHABI // The Gulf Cooperation Council has said it will consider measures to curb Hizbollah's interests in member states as the Lebanese Shiite group has admitted that it is supporting the regime in Syria's civil war.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, said in a speech on May 25 that members of his group were fighting alongside Bashar Al Assad's forces.

GCC ministers "condemned Hizbollah's blatant interference in Syria" and "decided to consider taking action against Hizbollah's interests in the GCC countries", the Saudi Press Agency said after GCC ministers met in Jeddah on Sunday.

The exact measures that could be taken against Hizbollah have yet to be determined and listing the group as a terrorist organisation was "a technical and legal matter that needs to be further studied", said the Bahraini minister of state for foreign affairs, Ghanim Al Buainain.

But one key pressure point could be financial, should Gulf states move against bank accounts thought to be used for fundraising among the extensive Gulf-based Lebanese diaspora.

Sanctions against individuals and companies interacting with the group have already been used by the United States and Israel, who both list Hizbollah as a terrorist group.

The European Union is also considering listing Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation and could finalise a decision as soon as June 24, at the next meeting of regional foreign ministers.

If implemented, the combination of these measures could further isolate Hizbollah and leave it reliant almost solely on Iran for support.

But analysts cautioned that targeting Hizbollah's web of interests in the Gulf states would be difficult.

With ample warning for possible sanctions, the group could move funds elsewhere before sanctions were implemented, said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst at the US Treasury and now vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies.

Without specific measures and international cooperation, "this could end up being more of a symbolic gesture, a message to Hizbollah that they are not invited in the Gulf", he said. "We'll be looking to see how much meat they put on the bones."

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said last week that his country's intelligence estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 Hizbollah fighters were involved in the Syrian conflict.

Gulf states led by Bahrain have also raised concerns about alleged attempts by Hizbollah to meddle in regional affairs. Manama listed Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation in April, and on May 27 the government banned any political group in the country from contacting the Lebanese group.

Mr Al Buainain told reporters in Jeddah that "nobody could cover up Hizbollah's actions in regional countries", though he did not specify what those activities were. "It is a terrorist organisation and this is how Gulf states see it," he said.

The Arab League and the GCC have both called for the departure of Mr Al Assad, and several Gulf states are reportedly providing arms to opposition groups.

 

edickinson@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse