US Treasury official visits Lebanon

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri meeting US treasury assistant secretary for terrorist financing, Marshall Billingslea, at the governmental palace in the Lebanese capital Beirut on September 23, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 24 September 2019

US Treasury official visits Lebanon

  • Billingslea meets PM, Parliament speaker, banking officials amid sanctions

BEIRUT: The assistant secretary for terrorist financing in the US Treasury Department met on Monday with Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri as part of a two-day visit to the country. In a statement, the US Embassy in Lebanon said Marshall Billingslea “will highlight the strong partnership between the United States and Lebanon and the US government’s confidence, in general, in the Lebanese financial sector.”
The embassy added: “During Billingslea’s meetings with officials and bankers, he will urge Lebanon to take the necessary steps to distance itself from Hezbollah and other malicious parties trying to destabilize the country and its institutions.”
Berri’s adviser Dr. Ali Hamdan told Arab News: “We listened to what he (Billingslea) has to say. Let us see what he has to add during his visit. We don’t want to comment on his positions.” Hariri’s office said the two sides reviewed financial and economic relations between the two countries.
Billingslea also met with the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh, the Banking Control Commission of Lebanon and the Association of Banks in Lebanon.
The visit comes amid a foreign currency liquidity crisis that has plagued Lebanon for more than a week, following US sanctions that included Jammal Trust Bank on Aug. 29.
The bank’s management announced a few days ago that it had decided to self-liquidate in full coordination with the Central Bank.
Economist Violette Balaa told Arab News: “Billingslea asked during his meetings for details regarding the liquidation of Jammal Trust Bank, and was keen on knowing that the accounts sanctioned by the US weren’t transferred to other banks.”
No Lebanese banks offered to buy Jammal Trust Bank, fearing US sanctions. “Billingslea’s tone, especially when he asserted that the US will continue to reinforce and impose more sanctions, was harsh,” Balaa said.


Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement has been a US-designated terrorist group since 1997 and fights alongside the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war.

“He added that the attacks on Saudi Aramco will receive many responses, and that the situation after the attacks won’t be as it used to be.”
Balaa said Billingslea did not mention other banks that would be subject to US sanctions during his meeting with the Association of Banks in Lebanon.
The liquidity crisis prompted Salameh to reassure the Lebanese public on Monday that “dollar bills are available … banks are meeting citizens’ needs of this currency, dollar liquidity is present in the banking sector, and Lebanon’s Central Bank has its assets in dollars.”
He said: “Billingslea’s visit is not to suppress the banks. We cherish having a good relationship with the US Treasury.” Salameh added: “The dollar exchange rate is not the responsibility of Lebanon’s Central Bank.”
Banks in Lebanon are pricing the dollar exchange rate between 1,507.50 and 1,517 Lebanese pounds, according to the official rate.
But exchange offices tend to price it between 1,550 and 1,570 Lebanese pounds under the pretext of scarcity in the market.
The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper described Billingslea as a “banks slaughterer,” and said his visit “was in the context of the pressure imposed by the US on Lebanon, under the pretext of preventing the facilitation of financial activities for Hezbollah.”
According to the US Embassy, Billingslea visited Lebanon in early 2018 to discuss combating illicit financing, including financing Hezbollah’s terrorist activities and illegal trafficking.
The embassy said Billingslea “shared the opinion of the Lebanese authorities and financial institutions officials that he met with, in the fight against all forms of illicit financing.”
It added: “He stressed the importance of combating harmful Iranian activity in Lebanon and how the United States is committed to helping Lebanon to protect its financial system from Hezbollah, Daesh (Daesh), and other terrorist organizations.”
Billingslea urged Lebanon “to take all possible measures to ensure that Hezbollah is not part of the country’s financial sector.”

Russian jets deployment in Libya sparks fears of Ankara-Moscow clash

Updated 35 min 30 sec ago

Russian jets deployment in Libya sparks fears of Ankara-Moscow clash

  • US AFRICOM: US Africa Command assesses that Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors
  • Turkey supports Syrian rebels and Libya’s Government of National Accord, while Russia backs Syria’s President Bashar Assad and the Libyan forces of Haftar

JEDDAH: Russia’s deployment of fighter aircraft to Libya to support mercenaries backing eastern strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar on Thursday ratcheted up the threat of a confrontation between Ankara and Moscow, experts warned.

In a statement, the US military’s Africa Command said: “US Africa Command assesses that Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors operating on the ground there.”

The warplanes had been painted “to camouflage their Russian origin,” the statement added.

Despite Moscow’s dismissal of claims about its role in the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya, University of Oxford researcher Samuel Ramani said that new revelations about Russia deploying MiG-29 fighter jets to Libya could create tensions with Turkey.

“Russian jets are being deployed in order to stem the tide of Turkey’s military offensive, which has combined the use of ground force proxies and air force personnel in a hybrid warfare-style fashion. There is also the heightened risk of an accidental aerial conflict between Russia and Turkey,” he told Arab News.

The UN said on Wednesday it was following the developments “with great concern” and highlighted the possible “devastating consequences” of any breaches of an arms embargo imposed on Libya.

Turkey supports Syrian rebels and Libya’s Government of National Accord, while Russia backs Syria’s President Bashar Assad and the Libyan forces of Haftar.

In recent months, there have been steps for rapprochement between Assad and Haftar whose common enemy is still Turkey. Haftar decided to reopen the Libyan Embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus which had been closed for eight years, while flights resumed recently between Damascus and the Libyan city of Benghazi under Haftar’s domain.

However, Ramani pointed out that the long-term impact on Russia-Turkey relations was more unclear.

“Russia is reportedly scaling back its Wagner Group mercenary presence in Libya and replacing those forces with fighter jets, and it is unclear whether this will do more than stall Turkey’s advance, while Moscow pushes for a diplomatic settlement,” he said.

He noted the timing of the reports, which had come on the same day of a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Libya’s House of Representatives’ (HOR) head Aguila Saleh.

Ramani added that Turkey was unlikely to change its conduct in Libya much, in response to Russia’s new developments, but would be more vigilant if Russia’s air war expanded, and the Russian S-400 defense system deal would likely remain in place.

“The only way the S-400 deal could collapse is if the US were to intervene in a material fashion that benefits Turkey and hurts Russia, which is a near-impossibility at present, due to (the coronavirus disease) COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Turkey was set to activate the S-400 missile defense system in April and risked harsh sanctions from Washington for the move. However, the target date was postponed officially due to the COVID-19 outbreak that changed national priorities.

But Turkish rulers still insist on using the Russian system, although it is unclear how the diverging moves in Libya recently would impact on their resolve.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 on May 25, Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said although Turkey had delayed the activation of the system due to the pandemic, the government was still planning to operate it.

Kalin also hinted that if the US were willing to send Patriot missiles to Turkey, Erdogan would be ready to listen to the offer.

Seth Frantzman, Middle East security analyst and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, said the Russian move meant to balance Ankara’s role in Libya and to make up for the losses in the Russian-made Pantsir air defense system and show Russia’s strength.

“It’s a bargaining chip related to Syria. Russia wants to show a strong hand in Libya to drive concessions in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, likely through a new regime offensive to illustrate that Russia is not abandoning its partners in Libya and that it is willing to symbolically commit air force assets very publicly,” he told Arab News.

Frantzman pointed out that while both Turkey and Russia worked together, they were also jockeying for popularity and influence in the region.

The UN said on Wednesday it was “following with great concern” claims that Russia sent jets to Libya.

The UN secretary-general’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said that, if proven, it would “constitute a flagrant violation of the arms embargo” imposed on Libya in 2011.

Without mentioning Russia, Dujarric said: “Reports of violations have increased significantly in the past few weeks, with reported near-daily transfers by air, land and sea.

“This increase in the violations of the arms embargo will only lead to the intensification of the fighting, which will result in devastating consequences for the Libyan people.”