Protesters demanding the resignation of the government and social reforms take part in a demonstration, in central Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Valeriy Melnikov / Sputnik

BEIRUT – The United States blacklisted two former Lebanese ministers, described as “Hezbollah enablers” on Tuesday, marking its first round of anticipated sanctions since an explosion at Beirut port killed more than 200 people.

“Today, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned former Lebanese government ministers Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil, who provided material support to Hizballah and engaged in corruption,” a statement read.

Finyanus and Khalil, the respective former ministers of transportation and finance, oversaw the Lebanese Customs Directorate during the period a 2,750-tonne stock of ammonium nitrate was stored by Customs at Beirut port. The US did not designate the Customs chief Badri Daher, but the designation appeared to be a warning as French President Emmanuel Macron seeks to commit the Lebanese political class to a roadmap of reforms.

Finyanus is a member of the Christian Marada party of Sleiman Frangieh, who met with the US ambassador to Lebanon as recently as June.

“As of mid-2019, Hizballah used its relationship with officials in the Lebanese government, including Finyanus as Minister of Transportation and Public Works, to siphon funds from government budgets to ensure that Hizballah-owned companies won bids for Lebanese government contracts worth millions of dollars,” the Treasury said.

“In 2015, Hizballah gave Finyanus hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for political favors. Also in 2015, Finyanus met regularly with Wafiq Safa,” it added.

The US Department of the Treasury sanctioned Safa, a veteran Hezbollah member, in July 2019 for allegedly facilitating the entry of weapons, drugs and other illegal items into Beirut port and misdirecting import duties and revenues.

The other sanctioned former minister, Ali Hassan Khalil, is a member of the Shiite Amal party, an ally of Hezbollah but also an interlocutor of the Americans. Its leader Nabih Berri has been speaker of Parliament for more than three decades.

Khalil “used the power of his office to exempt a Hizballah affiliate from paying most taxes on electronics imported to Lebanon, and a portion of what was paid was collected to support Hizballah. As of late 2019, Khalil as Finance Minister refused to sign checks payable to government suppliers in an effort to solicit kickbacks. He demanded that a percentage of the contracts be paid to him directly.”

The Treasury designation alleged details of corruption as well as a partly transactional relationship between Amal and Hezbollah.

“In late 2017, shortly before the Lebanese parliamentary elections that would take place in May 2018, Hizballah leaders, fearing a weakening of their political alliance with the Amal Movement, reached an agreement with Khalil where he was prepared to receive Hizballah support for his political success. Khalil worked to move money in a manner that would avoid US sanctions enforcement from government ministries to Hizballah-associated institutions,” it said.

The sanctions appeared to be an early warning shot to the Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese political class. They notably left out the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, an eventuality that remains on the table for the Trump administration.

A Republican task force has been clamoring for Donald Trump to use the Caesar Act and other sanctions to punish the FPM for its longstanding alliance with Hezbollah. The FPM is led by former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Aoun.

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.