An unexpected obstacle to efforts within the European Union (EU) to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization emerged last week when the new Bulgarian foreign minister, Kristian Vigenin, stated in a radio interview that evidence connecting the Lebanese Shi'a organization with last year's murderous assault on a busload of Israeli tourists in the resort town of Burgas was "not conclusive."
Vigenin produced no new evidence to counter the conclusion, shared by American, Israeli and British intelligence agencies, that Hezbollah was behind the attack. Yet by casting doubt on Hezbollah's role, Vigenin has opened the possibility that the bitter political divides within this comparatively marginal member of the EU could impact the bloc's Middle East policy as a whole.
For several years, Europe has been out of step with the United States and Israel over Hezbollah. Not applying the terrorist designation to Hezbollah has meant that the organization's supporters in Europe have been able to raise funds for it with impunity. The Burgas attack provided new momentum for British efforts to secure a reversal of this ghastly policy, especially as Bulgaria's previous, pro-western government was in no doubt over who was responsible. Only a fortnight ago, France and Germany, two countries that had long been resistant to the terrorist designation, were signaling a major change of position.
Enter the new Bulgarian government, a coalition of technocrats and ex-Communists elected on the basis of public anger with the perceived corruption and incompetence of the prior administration. Those who detect the hand of Russia in this bizarre twist over Burgas are probably not wrong. In eastern Europe these days, governments who distance themselves from America and western Europe are bound to veer towards Moscow. And Moscow doesn't want anyone to touch Hezbollah, given the military support these terrorists and war criminals have given to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which President Vladimir Putin and his cohorts energetically support.
This messy political context may, ironically, yield a positive result, in that it's unlikely that the rest of the EU, and particularly the British, will feel obliged to take Bulgaria's clumsy change of heart seriously. Moreover, the Burgas attack is not the only reason to apply the terrorist designation. For one thing, the British government has repeatedly cited the conviction of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, for conspiring to launch a Burgas-style attack against Israeli tourists visiting the island—a plan which one terrorism analyst described as "a rare lifting of the veil on how [Hezbollah terrorists] operate."
For another—and this is certainly of even greater importance—Hezbollah has become an active element in Assad's murderous war on his own people, which has claimed 80,000 lives. Without the support of Hezbollah units, it is unlikely that Assad's regime could have conquered rebel forces in the western town of Qusair, an outcome that further boosted Assad's morale in a week when his Russian allies announced that they would be providing his regime with S-300 air defense missiles.
Indeed, the French have already suggested that policy towards Hezbollah will be determined by events in Syria, rather than the Burgas attack. "Given the decisions taken by Hezbollah and the fact that it has fought very hard against the Syrian population, I confirm that France will propose to inscribe the military wing of Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations," the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, recently declared.
This reference to a Hezbollah "military wing" will without a doubt draw impatient sighs from the Israelis, who correctly point out that since Hezbollah doesn't distinguish between its "political" and "military" wings, neither should anyone else. But if the designation measures are robust enough to override any sly attempts to raise funds for Hezbollah as a political organization, that shouldn't really matter.
Additionally, if the EU doesn't act decisively against Hezbollah, it will face the accusation of complicity not just with terrorism, but with war crimes and crimes against humanity as well. By mobilizing in support of Assad, Hezbollah, as a Lebanese organization, has both crossed an international border for the sole purpose of carrying out military aggression, and participated in some of the ugliest atrocities against civilians witnessed since the Darfur conflict in Sudan. France has said that it has no doubt that the "regime and its accomplices" have used chemical weapons in their offensive. Even the Israel-obsessed UN Human Rights Council has described "murder, torture, rape, and other inhumane acts" as proof that the Syrian conflict has reached "new levels of brutality."
It's a far cry from the shameful scenes in European cities in 2006, when left-wing celebrities led demonstrations against Israel's decision to strike against Hezbollah after the terrorists launched missiles at northern Israel, clad in T-shirts bearing the legend, "We Are All Hezbollah." Now, only the most fanatically minded will hold to the conviction that Hezbollah is a legitimate "resistance" organization.
Consequently, if the Europeans want to show that they are serious about taking on Hezbollah, they can go one step further than a terrorism designation. They can tell Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that he, along with his key officers, will be held personally responsible for the abysmal crimes committed by their forces in Syria. Since Assad's atrocities have reached the unspeakable depths visited by other, similar conflicts in recent years—I think in particular of Bosnia, Congo and Rwanda—a war crimes tribunal is an absolute necessity. And the butchers of Hezbollah should be among the first in the dock.