The Treasury and State Departments announced Friday that the U.S. government is sanctioning Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime, even though the Lebanese militia is already sanctioned for being a terrorist group and the new announcement doesn't actually change those sanctions at all.
"This action highlights Hezbollah's activities within Syria as well as its integral role in the continued violence being carried out by the Assad regime against the Syrian population," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said on a Friday afternoon conference call.
He noted that Hezbollah is already sanctioned as a terrorist group, since 1995, for numerous terrorist acts including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah has perpetrated attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East, and tried to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus, Cohen said.
The Assad regime has given the group weapons, money, and safe haven for training camps, and now Hezbollah is repaying the favor by providing training, advice, and logistical support to the Syrian government, he said, especially in how to wage a counterinsurgency.
"Since the start of the unrest in Syria in early 2011, Hezbollah has directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force," said Cohen. "Hezbollah has also played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria."
State Department's counterterrorism czar Amb. Daniel Benjamin said that Hezbollah is coordinating directly in Syria with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. He pointed to press reports that Hezbollah was behind recent terrorist attacks on Israelis in Thailand and Belgium, and accused the group of narcotics trafficking and international money laundering.
"Hezbollah believes that there have been sustained Israeli and Western campaigns against the group and its primary backers, Iran and Syria, over the past several years. And this perception is unlikely to change," he said. "Both [Hezbollah and Iran] remain determined to exact revenge against Israel and to respond forcefully to the Western-led pressure against Iran and Syria."
The Cable asked both officials if designating Hezbollah for sanctions, which freezes the group's U.S.-based assets and bars Americans from doing business with Hezbollah, has any added concrete effect if done twice. They said the added effect is in the court of public opinion.
"It will put the group in a more difficult situation, and, I think, will make them think long and hard before they continue this campaign in which the Syrian people are being brutalized. So we do see very concrete benefits coming from this designation," said Benjamin. "Whether they will be in the area of financial sanctions or not remains to be seen, but in terms of casting a bright light on what the group is doing, I think that's vitally important."
So the Treasury Department doesn't have to actually do anything to enforce the new designation it wasn't doing already, and Hezbollah doesn't feel any additional direct pain. Cohen said the Hezbollah's assets should already be frozen but there is additional impact in adding the new designation.
"The purpose of our designations, whether it's the Hezbollah action today or any of our other designations under our authorities, is not solely focused on the immediate financial impact, but as Ambassador Benjamin just expressed, to expose the activity of the party that is being designated for the conduct that has led to the designation," he said.
Benjamin said that the Obama administration hopes other countries will follow suit, not mentioning the European Union specifically, but he wouldn't say there is any indication other countries are planning any such announcement any time soon.
Cohen wouldn't comment on whether or not Hezbollah even has any assets in the United States in the first place.
"As noted before, to the extent that they are here, they should have already been frozen, and anyone who has Hezbollah assets in their possession is required to report those to OFAC. But beyond that, I can't comment," he said.
For those on Capitol Hill who are skeptical of the administration's sanctions and diplomacy-based approach toward pressuring the Assad regime to stop killing its own people, today's action seemed less than consequential.
"Today's announcement appears more about politics than policy, style more than substance," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "This hollow designation may be pleasing to Obama strategists in Chicago, but it won't do a thing to help the people dying in the streets of Syria."
In a separate action today, the administration also sanctioned the Syrian state-run oil company Sytrol under the Iran Sanctions Act as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act.
"These sanctions are because of transactions that Sytrol engaged in with Iran's energy sector, and I think the action we're taking today highlights the really serious concerns that the United States has about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and the fact that we, the United States, are committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization," a senior administration official said on a different Friday afternoon conference call.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.