The Lebanese Hezbollah movement has made international headlines in recent weeks. On April 10, the U.S. State department announced a $10 million reward in exchange for information regarding Sheikh Mohammad Kawtharani, Hezbollah’s point man on Iraq. Then, on April 30, Germany announced it had designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Although this points to a clear escalation, it remains uncertain if such measures will succeed in undermining the movement.
The U.S. announcement on Kawtharani
The reward announced in exchange for information about Kawtharani is unprecedented and a testimony to Hezbollah’s growing regional clout.
While similar announcements have been made regarding Hezbollah members in the past, the case of Kawtharani is the first in which such a reward is offered in relation to a senior Hezbollah official taking up a broader regional role.
In announcing the reward, the U.S. State Department said that Kawtharani had “taken over some of the political coordination of Iran-aligned paramilitary groups (in Iraq)”, following the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani back in January.
The State Department further accused Kawtharani of facilitating the actions of groups that have “attacked foreign diplomatic missions.”
Given the timing of the announcement, it’s fair to assume that Kawtharani has played a pivotal role in recent attacks that have targeted U.S. troops in Iraq.
On March 11, two American soldiers and one British soldier were killed in a rocket attack on the Camp Taji base.
A group calling itself Asbat al-Thaireen (league of revolutionaries) claimed responsibility for that attack.
Asbat al-Thaireen is categorized under the label of “Shiite militant groups” and it is not farfetched to imagine a scenario in which the Lebanese Hezbollah is heavily involved in the group’s operations and planning.
The statements made by Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah lend further credence to this argument. In a speech on January 5, Nasrallah called for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the region as a retaliation for the assassination of Soleimani.
“Fair punishment is aimed at the American military presence in the region: American military bases, American naval ships, every American officer and soldier in our countries and region,” Nasrallah said.
The announcement regarding Kawtharani could mean the U.S. may be planning an assassination of the Hezbollah official. However, if history is any indication, assassination operations will fail to weaken the Lebanese movement.
High ranking Hezbollah officials have been assassinated in the past, but the movement has only become stronger. Israeli forces assassinated Hezbollah’s former secretary general Sayyed Abbas Al-Moussawi back in February 1992, only to be replaced by Nasrallah under whom the movement has seen what could be termed as its “glory days.”
Imad Moughnieh, Hezbollah’s former top military commander, meanwhile was assassinated in a joint Mossad-CIA operation in Damascus in February 2008. However, despite the assassination, the Lebanese movement proved to be a force to be reckoned with later on in the fight against extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida.
Hezbollah played a major role in defeating these groups in Syria, and also coordinated with the Lebanese army to successfully counter the extremist threat in Lebanese border areas with Syria. The movement also sent members to Iraq to assist in the fight against ISIS.
Given this history, it is very likely that Hezbollah will have the appropriate replacement in place to take charge of the Iraqi file should Kawtharani be assassinated.
At the same time, such an assassination would threaten even more retaliation from the Lebanese movement and its “ideological allies” in Iraq, hence placing American troops in that country in even graver danger.
The German designation
The German designation of Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization (as opposed to distinguishing between its “political” and “military wings”), is the latest development in the intensified U.S.-led efforts aimed at getting European countries to blacklist the movement.
These efforts have gained traction with the Trump administration, which has been notably vocal in calling on European states to take this step in line with its notable pro-Israeli policies.
In a press conference back in October 2017, U.S. counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales took aim at the European stance towards Hezbollah, criticizing the distinction made by most European countries between a “political” and “military” wing.
“Some countries have chosen to designate only Hezbollah’s military wing, leaving its so-called political wing untouched,” said Sales, describing such a stance as “a false distinction” and Hezbollah as “single organization, a terrorist organization.”
Britain was the first major case in which the American efforts appeared to bear fruit, with London announcing in March 2019 that it had designated the Lebanese movement in its entirety as a terrorist organization. And in line with this designation, the British finance ministry announced last January that it had added Hezbollah to its list of terrorist groups subject to asset freezing.
Germany’s blacklisting of Hezbollah however appears to reveal U.S. pressures much more clearly.
U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell has been leading the charge in calling on European nations to blacklist Hezbollah. The American diplomat has penned op-eds in European and German magazines calling for the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and has even admitted to having played a role in pushing Germany into making the decision.
“The entire U.S. embassy in Berlin has worked with the German government and the Bundestag for two years to push for this ban. It’s an incredible diplomatic success that we hope will motivate many officials in Brussels to follow suit with an EU-wide ban,” Grenell said.
Notably, Grenell was promoted to the position of acting-Director of National Intelligence last February while at the same time maintaining his post as U.S. Ambassador to Berlin.
At the same time however, Germany stands to lose from its decision. It has played the role of mediator in prisoner swaps between Hezbollah and Israel, including one that took place in 2008 in which five Lebanese prisoners were exchanged for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.
After blacklisting Hezbollah, it is all but certain that Germany will cease to be able to play any mediating roles involving the Lebanese movement.
A new phase of escalation against Hezbollah
Due to the strength and influence it has accumulated over the years, along with the presence of arguably the most pro-Israeli U.S. administration in history, Hezbollah appears to be in a new phase of confrontation with its enemies. And while these enemies have managed to score points, the Lebanese movement has proven its resiliency in the past, succeeding against major challenges. In the July 2006 war, Hezbollah managed to confront Israel to a standstill against all odds, in addition to adopting what has proven to be a successful strategy in Syria.
Therefore, it’s likely that Hezbollah may also emerge stronger from the intensified campaign it currently finds itself against.