The Treasury Department's special briefing on the designation of Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime Weak evidence of involvement beyond the rhetorical

 Recently the U.S. Treasury department held a special briefing on the designation of Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime. The briefing was held via teleconference on August 10. 2012. The conflict in Syria has raised many important questions. One question is whether the Lebanese group Hezbollah is actually fighting in Syria alongside the regime forces. Hezbollah has a substantial fighting force that could be very helpful to the embattled regime. It is evident that the group, despite its rhetorical support, has not deployed this fighting force to support the embattled regime. However, it is amply clear that Hezbollah has rhetorically vigorously supported the Syrian regime. This is evident from speeches of its leaders and the aggressive pro -regime coverage by its media outlets and the media outlets supported directly and indirectly by the group.

Treasury's briefing sought to argue that the support goes beyond the verbal. However, as evident from the exchanges with reporters from different media organizations, the government has not put out real evidence that Hezbollah is directly involved in the conflict in Syria. Therefore, it is doubtful that the U.S. government will be able to convince the public in the US or abroad that Hezbollah is providing more than rhetorical support to the Assad regime. Also, from the information put forth by Treasury it is also doubtful that the U.S. will be able to convince the EU to treat Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and end the distinction between the military and the political/social wings of the group. Below are excerpts from Treasury's brief as posted on its website.* The sub headings are mine.

 MR. SULLIVAN: Hello, everyone. This is John Sullivan. I’m the spokesman over at the Treasury Department. Today we’re going to discuss the designation of Hezbollah for their support to the Assad regime in Syria. On the line today I have Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen from the Treasury Department as well as Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: Thanks, John. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us on the call today. Today the Treasury Department designated the terrorist group Hezbollah for providing support to the Government of Syria. 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. While today’s actions are focused on Hezbollah’s continuing support of the Syrian regime, it is certainly not the first time that Treasury or the United States has publicly exposed the violent acts of this terrorist organization. Hezbollah has been designated as a Global Terrorist by the United States since 1995 for a long history of terrorist attacks against American citizens and officials, including the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon during the 1980s. Before al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other terrorist group. Hezbollah started out carrying out bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon but quickly expanded its violent campaign on to a global stage, carrying out and supporting terrorist attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East. More recently we have seen the group’s plotting disrupted in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus. Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah have for years painted their organization as a social and political party as well as a resistance movement; however, their activities and statements clearly paint a different picture. Hezbollah has consistently used terrorist operations to attack civilians. Hezbollah’s members have engaged in criminal behavior, including profiting from the narcotics money-laundering scheme of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which we exposed last year. And now Hezbollah is actively providing support to the Assad regime as it carries out its bloody campaign against the Syrian people. As the wave of revolt has spread across the Middle East, Hezbollah leadership has publicly supported some protests where it suited their needs, and in other cases, such as in Syria, it has actively supported the violent crackdown being carried out by the Syrian dictatorship. For years the Assad regime provided safe haven to Hezbollah training camps and routed weapons and money, in many cases, from Iran to Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon. Hezbollah is now repaying its debt to Assad by providing training, advice, and extensive logistical support to the Government of Syria. As the Assad regime continues to crack under international pressure and the continued success of the Syrian opposition, the Treasury Department and the entire U.S. Government will continue to work to expose the activities of Hezbollah and Iran and whoever else is responsible for assisting the Syrian regime in its campaign of violence against the Syrian population.

                                       Symbolic or real?
                             What about the EU and Hezbollah?

 Our first question comes from Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy. QUESTION: Thank you, gentlemen, for doing the call, and thank you for your service. I’d like to ask you: Since Hezbollah was already designated, and now we’re designating them for an additional reason, does that bring any additional punitive consequences to the group? Does it actually increase the pressure on them in any practical ways? If so, what are those ways? And Ambassador Benjamin, you mentioned that you’re hoping other countries will follow suit. Do you have any indication that any of these countries, especially the EU, will follow suit and designate Hezbollah? Do we have any reason to believe that’s going to happen? Thank you. AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Hi, Josh. I’ll take that one. It’s Dan Benjamin again. It’s always hard to predict if there’s going to be any near-term enforcement action on our own part, but I think that we have a responsibility – there’s been a lot of discussion about Hezbollah involvement in Syria. Here we have the U.S. Government going on the record and describing it, and I think that that is very important in its own right. Additionally, we feel that there needs to be a broader discussion in the international community about the activities of this group. It has portrayed itself, as David Cohen said, as a political party, as a resistance group, so on and so forth. It certainly doesn’t look to us like it’s sympathizing with the people of Syria. We have many partners in the international community who share the revulsion about what is going on in Syria. We believe that if they are presented with this information – and we will, of course, be following up diplomatically – that they may want to take additional measures. And over the long term, that will limit the amount of space that Hezbollah has to operate. 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. 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.

QUESTION: Okay. So there’s no actual additional punitive measures? AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: So, well – David. UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: Yeah. Josh, as I think you know, when we designate under any of our IEEPA authorities, including the executive order that we’re acting under today, the legal effect is that it freezes the assets of the party being designated and prohibits any U.S. person from transacting with the designee. QUESTION: But they’re already frozen, right? UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: Josh, let me finish. The – Hezbollah has previously been designated. It is already a legal obligation for any U.S. person to freeze their assets and to refrain from any transactions with Hezbollah. But 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. And so the designation of Hezbollah today and the information that underlies that designation that is part of our release today serves the very, very important purpose of making clear to parties around the world – both domestically and internationally – the true nature of Hezbollah’s activities. So that is the purpose of today’s action. Is Hezbollah in the field with the Syrian regime? OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya.

QUESTION: Okay. You said that Hezbollah also has played a substantial role in efforts to expel senior opposition forces from areas within Syria. Are you saying essentially that Hezbollah is in the field fighting with the Syrian Government forces against Syrian opposition forces on Syrian soil? UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: I think what we’re saying is what we put forth in the paper itself, that Hezbollah is actively working to expel those forces. It is providing operational support to the Syrian Government in Syria.

QUESTION: Do you know whether there were Hezbollah casualties? We’ve seen from reports in Lebanon that there are suspicions that there were Hezbollah casualties fell in Syria. Can you substantiate that? UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: I think we’ve seen those reports as well, but I don’t have anything to add to that. What kind of support? OPERATOR: Our next question is from Eli Lake of Newsweek.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. So it’s really kind of three questions, but they’re quick. Can you provide any more detail on the kind of support – I know it’s sort of asked before – that Hezbollah is providing to Syria? And also, how do you avoid the problem of some European counterterrorism types say, which is that Hezbollah is so important in the Lebanese Government right now, so how do you target Hezbollah without ruining any U.S. diplomatic relations with Lebanon? UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: So I’ll take the first part of that and Ambassador Benjamin can take the second part. The – and the first part of it’s pretty easy, because I really can’t give you any greater detail than what we’ve put forward in the press release and in my statement this afternoon about the activities of Hezbollah in Syria. But as we note, it is a range of activity, including logistical support, operational support, to the Syrian Government in its violent crackdown. AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Yeah. And as for the second part, our view is that the repression of the Assad regime is intolerable, that we believe that there is a very high priority in exposing the support that Hezbollah has given to that group. I think that there will be other commentators who might say that Hezbollah is in an embarrassed position in Lebanon because of this activity, and we have never shied away, I think, from telling the truth about Hezbollah and we weren’t going to now. Where is the evidence for this? OPERATOR: Our next question is from Brad Klapper of AP.

QUESTION: Yes, Dan, you said you hope that other countries would follow suit after looking at the information that you’ve laid out here. But you don’t really provide too much evidence; you just kind of lay out claims that we’ve heard before. The fact that they’re – you say they’re assisting or abetting or facilitating training, these aren’t new. Where is the evidence for this? AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, what goes on in the discussions between governments may very well go beyond what is provided here to the public. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the United States is standing by these charges. This is not a matter of idle speculation or press reports. This is based on a great deal of information gathering that we have done and we’ve synthesized and we’ve put it together in an authoritative document, and we believe that it will be taken seriously by many around the world. We can't talk about intelligence OPERATOR: Our next question is from Adam Entous of Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you very much. A question for both of you, maybe. Did Assad specifically ask Hezbollah to get involved? Is there any intelligence on that or whether the Iranians asked Hezbollah to jump in more so? We know that Hezbollah has had operational links with Syria for a long time, so how is actually this different from the involvement in the past? And is there any evidence to suggest that Hezbollah, in providing this assistance, is expecting anything in return? There’s been a lot of concern about Syrian WMD. I was hoping you guys could address those. UNDER SECRETARY COHEN: Well, I think your question sort of highlights what the answer is going to be. We can’t, obviously, talk about intelligence that may speak to whether Assad asked for Hezbollah to come in or not. But it is – it’s certainly true that there is a longstanding relationship between the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has benefitted greatly from its access to Syria for training camps and the like over the years, and as well as it being an important conduit for its support from Iran. So the fact that you have Hezbollah providing the type of support that it’s providing now to the Syrian Government alongside the Qods Force and the law enforcement forces from Iran and the MOIS as well is no surprise really, given the combined interests that those entities have in trying to prop up the Assad regime. But who asked whom to jump in to the fight there against the people of Syria is something that I can’t comment on directly.

QUESTION: As for the pursuit of maybe WMD – and maybe you can address the issue – I mean, our reporting from the region is more that Hezbollah has been sort of holding back; they have a lot more capabilities that they could be providing and they seem to not be providing that. Maybe that’s a reflection of their domestic Lebanese ambitions, that they don’t want to get too entangled in neighboring Syria. Is that what you’re seeing here? I think the surprise of many is that Hezbollah is not doing more. AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Doing more in the sense of providing WMD?

QUESTION: No. Sorry. Providing -- AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I’m not sure what your question --

QUESTION: Providing support to the Syrian Government. I mean, Hezbollah has – could do – could be much more involved than they have been. AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I’m not sure we would necessarily agree with that assessment. They are deeply involved. And if you watch Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches of late, I don't think that they’re being coy about their support for Syria. And anything on the relationship between Hezbollah and Syria regarding WMD would be either speculative or entirely irresponsible, so I don't think we should go there. 

* Link to briefing:


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