Last July, a suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and a local tour operator in the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas. The bomber, dressed in gaudy shorts and a shabby wig, waited for the Israelis at Burgas airport. He followed them to their tour bus and then detonated a bomb hidden in his backpack.
On Tuesday, Bulgarian officials announced the results of their investigation. Blame was placed squarely on Hezbollah and, by association, its sponsor Iran. Canadians will note, too, that one of the suspects apparently entered the country using a Canadian passport.
While Israeli and American officials and terrorism experts long ago pointed a finger at Hezbollah, the Bulgarian report matters a great deal. It may even signal the beginning of the end for Hezbollah.
Bulgaria is a member of the European Union. Until now, the EU has been particularly soft on Hezbollah. Only the Netherlands and the U.K. have blacklisted the organization, though Britain continues to distinguish between Hezbollah’s militant and political wings. France and Germany, on the other hand, have been hesitant to ban any part of the organization. They prefer turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s local activities.
This means that in much of Europe Hezbollah is free to set up shop and finance its global operations. But now, with the Bulgarian report in hand, Europe has an opportunity to finally get tough on Hezbollah. By joining Canada, the United States, Australia and Israel in proscribing and sanctioning the organization, the EU may well cripple it altogether.
The timing is perfect for strong European action. The past two years have been particularly difficult for Hezbollah.
First, notwithstanding its political and military clout in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s international operations have become an embarrassment.
The Burgas blast was only one of more than 20 international terrorism plots Hezbollah and Iran tried to orchestrate since 2011. From India to Azerbaijan, and from Thailand to Kenya, Hezbollah has been busy conspiring attacks against Israelis and Jews.
The bombing in Bulgaria was the high-water mark and the only real success. Almost all of the other plots failed, often spectacularly. Dozens of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives have been arrested around the world. Other operatives have been maimed and Hezbollah safe houses destroyed in accidental explosions. Weapons caches have been confiscated. And bombs have fizzled out prematurely.
“What is particularly striking,” writes Hezbollah-expert Matthew Levitt, “is how amateurish” the plots have been. Attacks have been “carried out with gross incompetence.”
Put into historical perspective, Hezbollah’s recent failures are astonishing. The last time Hezbollah carried out a sustained campaign of international terrorism it killed and injured thousands of people. During the 1990s, its attacks in Argentina, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere were the hallmark of global terrorism.
Today, there’s a lot of smoke, but very little fire. Hezbollah’s international reach is clearly limited, its capabilities wanting.
Second, in Syria Hezbollah has backed the wrong horse.
Unlike Hamas – a Gaza-based terrorist organization that vacated its Damascus headquarters in 2012 and severed its ties to the Syrian regime – Hezbollah stands firmly alongside President Bashar Assad. Elite Hezbollah fighters have been rushed to Syria’s frontlines to bolster Assad’s dwindling forces. Last October, Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, called Hezbollah “part of Assad’s killing machine.”
Hezbollah’s support for Assad is a losing proposition. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak noted only last week that Syria’s fall was “imminent.” There are very few scenarios in which Assad manages to defeat Syrian opposition forces and retain control of the country.
For Hezbollah the outlook is grim. If Assad falls, it loses a crucial sponsor along with a primary conduit for Iranian weapons. And its strategic position, with Israel to the south and hostile Sunnis rising in the north, will be further weakened. But in trying to rescue an international pariah that is beyond being saved, Hezbollah risks implicating itself in the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians. That will alienate its popular base.
With Hezbollah on the ropes, Europe is in a position to land another blow. Blacklisting and sanctioning the organization will freeze Hezbollah’s European assets, weakening an already anemic but still dangerous terrorist organization.
Dr. Alex Wilner is a senior researcher at ETH Zurich, Switzerland and a Fellow specialising in counterterrorism at the Macdonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada.