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.
“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.”