The decision by the EU to list Hezbollah's military wing as a terrorist organization has been long in the making and became inevitable after the group's alleged involvement in terror operations on European soil. This may have complicating consequences for the EU's policy of engagement with all sides in Lebanon where Hezbollah is a legitimate political party. The action is largely symbolic, so too is the distinction between the political and military wings; but this is in a context where symbolism means everything.
Legitimate political party
Hezbollah currently has 12 MPs in the Lebanese parliament. Its militia was the only one not disarmed following the 1990 Taif agreement which ended the civil war, which gave Syria unchallenged control over the country with international blessing. Since then every Lebanese government has legitimized Hezbollah's resistance role in its political programme and power-sharing arrangements have included Hezbollah ministers. Syrian hegemony over Lebanon was challenged in September 2004 with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 which called for Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah and other Syrian sponsored armed militias. The assassination of Lebanon's prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 triggered mass anti-Syrian demonstrations, forcing the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. Hezbollah maintained its allegiance to Syria's Assad regime and its prestige was enhanced in what was considered a 'divine victory' against the Israel Defence Force in 2006. A compromise formula was reached allowing the group to maintain its status and its arms while the government would consider an alternative national defence strategy in a national dialogue process under the aegis of the president with EU support.
Hezbollah’s arms are the principal divisive issue in Lebanese politics. Its resistance halo has been dented several times first by the indictment of four of its members for suspected involvement in the Hariri assassination, but also for its attack on Beirut in May 2008 after the government questioned its communications network and control over the airport. The group's decision to fight on the side of the Syrian regime in Syria's current conflict has rendered the Lebanese government's policy of disassociation and neutrality meaningless. Hezbollah's justification of their involvement has increased sectarian tensions in the country, placing it more as a contingent of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) acting in a context far removed from its original resistance credentials and harming its own interests in the Gulf countries.
The UK was the first government to make the distinction between the political and military wings of Hezbollah when it declared the latter a terrorist organization in July 2008 after Hezbollah acknowledged for the first time its association with Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was widely believed to be behind a wave of Western hostage-taking and embassy bombings, including the US Marines barracks bombing, in Lebanon during the 1980s when the country was the theatre of US-Iranian confrontation. The issue of the ruling was revived in Brussels after allegations that Hezbollah operatives were involved in the bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria and in a spying operation in Cyprus, another EU member state.
Hezbollah’s reaction to the EU blacklisting has been defiant. In a statement they described the decision as bowing to American and Israeli pressure, and 'against the interest of the people of the EU'. These interests include EU member states' involvement in and leadership of UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon who frequently have to coordinate with Hezbollah's security establishment which is not part of its political wing. The EU delegation in Lebanon has declared its continuous engagement with all political parties in Lebanon and said that the decision will not affect its financial support to the country, some of which is directly with Hezbollah-held ministries. They have also promised to revise the decision every six months.
Mohamad Chatah, a former Lebanese minister of finance tweeted that the decision was a small slap on the wrist for Hezbollah but a big step for the EU; an editorial in the Beirut broadsheet Assafir wondered what the EU would do if Hezbollah declares that the distinction between its political and military wings is non-existent.
While the decision to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by the EU was somewhat inevitable, its consequences remain unpredictable, especially if the EU is no longer seen as a neutral arbitrator in its engagement with Lebanon.