‘ISIS won’t be destroyed without ground war, air campaign not enough’ – mayor of Lebanon’s Tripoli

The civil war in Syria is spilling over the border, reigniting sectarian violence in Lebanon. Government troops are in fierce clashes with Islamic militants, trying to contain the spread of extremism. Why are the terrorist groups gaining support in Syria’s neighbor? How can to radical extremism be stopped from spreading? And why are young people from Lebanon joining ISIS and al-Nusra? The mayor of Lebanon’s Tripoli, a city badly affected by the Syrian civil war, is on SophieCo today to discuss these issues.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Doctor Nader Ghazal, mayor of Lebanon’s Tripoli, city struggling to contain the spillover from the civil war in Syria, it’s really great to have you on our program today. So, Tripoli is recovering from an army offensive against Islamist militants. What is the situation in the city right now? Is it calm? Has the fighting stopped?

Nader Ghazal: Well, first of all, thank you for inviting me, Sophie, and I think nowadays we are feeling the flourishment of the security plan, which was implemented in the springtime. So, it’s good that we have it implemented in the springtime and continued, and it flourished in autumn. That’s good. We are getting much better than before.

SS:What exactly do you mean, “it flourished”? How is the situation on the ground now? Is it completely calm? Has the fighting stopped altogether?

NG: Well, in fact, you know, the city of Tripoli has been known for a long time as a city of patriotism, and at the same time, you know, due to several issues that made up those insurgents and those gangs to be in the streets. Now we have proven again and again that the city is not outlawed at all, it is part of the country, it is the second capital of the country. As you have noticed maybe, in the past couple of months and even couple of years we have the civil society. I’ve been very active to prove that we all want the army, we all want the government to take over. Now I think it’s high time, the government with the armed forces, and internal security forces are doing their job. I think it’s about time for everyone to go back to his own daily life.

SS:Local news reports suggest terrorists weren’t defeated and they went just into hiding, left the city with the civilians. Isn’t it almost certain that they will return?

NG: You know, I think even the word “terrorist” would give them a much bigger size than what they are. Those two people or, let’s say, ten or twenty people around them, they are not part of any terrorist group outside the country. Maybe they have some feelings because of injustice that was inflicted on them, some feelings towards some of those Islamist parties outside the country, but again, I think the army was wise enough to use the force, but at the same time not to be rude on the people, you know, because at the end of the day this is the army of the country and those are the people, the citizens of the country. So, I think with the wisdom that they had in implementing the security plan during the month of March, during the springtime, I think the same model is applied again during autumn. What they did, they implemented the law, they enforced the law, they have now - the army is, with the security forces, taking over in the city, and as for those couple of people, they are already now being hunted wherever they are.

SS:So, you are saying those people are not even worth being called “terrorists”, too much of an honor to them, and they are just a couple of people that are being hunted, but, however, they’ve caused this turmoil, then they’ve caused this heavy fighting that lasted almost a week in your city. So, where do they hide? Do they hide among civilians, or are civilians happy to hide these militants themselves? What information do you have?

NG: Well, in fact, the civilians in the city and specifically in those districts where we had the fighting, where we had the army, are going after those outlawed. In fact, they left the quarters and that’s what it means, the civilians are not with them and they are not there to become, like, you know, human shields to them. So, I don’t think they are hiding with other citizens, but most probably, maybe they are around the mountains. And you know, in our country we have mountains, we have valleys, but at the end of the day, I think those outlawed, they will get their punishment, they will be brought to justice.

SS: And I’ve also read news reports that say there are ISIS and al-Nusra flags all over Tripoli. Why is there so much support for the terror groups in the city?

NG: Well, I think there’s an exaggeration about this, because, you know, the city of Tripoli we are talking about, almost seven hundred thousand people, so if two or three people carried the flags of al-Nusra or the flags of Da’ish, which so happened to be the flags of Islam, you know, “lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, Muhammadun rasūlu-llāh” (“There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”), this is the flag of Islam. So, again, as I said previously some of them, yes, they do have some sentiments with Da’ish or with al-Nusra, but this does not mean at all, at least to my knowledge, that they are part of an organized group, you know, that is linked directly to al-Nusra, to ISIS or to al-Nusra.

SS:But I’m just trying to figure out why is there so much liking towards these organizations.

NG: Well, I wouldn’t say: “so much liking”, but what I’d say, they have something in common with Da’ish or al-Nusra, for example Da’ish and al-Nusra, although I’m not with Da’ish at all, neither with al-Nusra, but I think they are claiming they are having, you know, fighting the injust regimes and injust governments in Iraq and in Syria. Our people in the city of Tripoli, some of them, those gangs, those minority I would say, they have the same feelings towards the government, they feel that there are double standards in the city, in the country rather, so they felt like idolizing al-Nusra and Da’ish, but that does not mean at all, and again I say, at least to my knowledge, that there is no direct link between those people and Da’ish or al-Nusra.

SS:Once again, I base my knowledge on whatever in the news and the news outlets, so the British “The Independent” newspaper, which is actually quite reliable source, quoted a young man from Tripoli, saying: “We are all al-Nusra, we are all ISIS.” Can you turn that attitude around, or is that irreversible?

NG: Well, I think this person, or those two, or five, or even ten, or even a hundred people, they do not represent in whatever means, the voice of the city of Tripoli, which, as I said before, our people, they show their support to the government or to the army, and this is why I would say that insurgency, I would say, that took us almost two to three days, no more than that. I remember very well, the army took over, they started the fighting on Friday, it was heavy fighting, this is true. There’s a lot of excess of power I would say, that was used by the army. Maybe it was wise from them, you know, to show how serious the army is about finishing the job. But I think, on Sunday morning, as I said, I was walking in the streets of the city, of the old city, where the fighting was, so I don’t think that we have a lot of them. And again, the city said its word that we are with the government, and we are with the formal national forces.

SS: But your own MP, I’m sure you know him, the local Sunni MP, Khaled al Daher, he said that young people in the area are very involved with al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front. How big is the flow of youth leaving to fight in Syria?

NG: Well, you know very well that the city of Tripoli and even the north of Lebanon, along with the Beqaa Valley, we have many relations, family relations and also friendship relations with the neighbors. And I think many of them already with the Lebanese, I’m sorry, with the Syrian Free Army. And many of them are at least supporting them, you know. At the same time, many of them are supporting the resistance and having the borders open, and we always ask the government, to close the borders and to heavily protect them with arms and with the security forces. I think the borders are open for anyone to walk in and walk out. Also don’t forget that we have also a big militia in Lebanon, which already stated very clearly that they are with the regime, the Syrian regime, and they’re supporting the regime. So, I mean, looking both ways, with both eyes, I think those who are going there for the reason of, you know, feeling the sentiments and the passion with the relatives and with their friends, and some of them also, they are supporting, as I said, and this is clearly stated by many of them, that they are with the resistance, the Syrian resistance, and against the Syrian government, or Syrian regime. I think, allowing such big militia to go in and declaring the war that they are with the Syrian regime will put the situation in awkward position. Ok, how can you, you know, forbid people not to go over the Syrian borders, and they are not as many as the other militia is doing, so, what can you do?

SS:So, yeah, you are basically saying the same thing - you are confirming what I’m saying. For whatever reason, whether its family ties or sympathizing, or whatever, they are going to the other side to help the Syrian rebels. Do you know the number approximately, how big is this outflow to Syria from Lebanon?

NG: Well, yes, I am confirming that there are people that are sharing and are participating in the fighting in Syria, but again, what I’m saying, compared to the very well organized paramilitary militia that is involved, I think the number is quite small as compared to the others.

SS: As opposed to you, the army says it was fighting terrorists, actually. Who are these people, exactly? Is this ISIS, is this al-Nusra, local recruits, Syrian rebels – who are the people that the army was fighting?

NG: You know, I’m not a security person, but I know from what we hear during the meeting with the security people and with intelligence, those guys – they are nothing but gangs, they feel that there are double standards in the country. Most of them are poor people – in fact, almost all of them are poor people, and all they wanted was to show themselves, that “we are here and we want the government to take good care of us”.

SS:So it’s a home-grown thing, am I understanding this correctly?

NG: To a great extent, yes, this is the case. And again, as a proof of that, once we had the security plan implemented, once people got back to their work, as you can see, the city is prospering and living in total security. So again, it’s about poverty, again about finding jobs for people.

SS:But tell me something: since this wasn’t the first fighting in Tripoli over the past year or two, how was this latest battle different from the previous ones?

NG: You know, as a mayor with my council members since 2010, we’ve been living very closely with the fightings for four years, and I can assure you that now the central decision of the government is firm and determined that we would not go back to the previous fighting. The central government, they felt really that if the fighting continues on and on in the city of Tripoli, the whole country will be in turmoil. So what happened is, now they have reached that stage, although it’s so sad that it took them four years of devastation for our people, and the killing and, you know, the economic situation which really deteriorated in the city.

SS: But it’s not just Tripoli, though, that has seen the echo of the Syrian civil war, right? The clashes are also taking place in other cities, even in Beirut. Do you fear that Lebanon, a country with a significant Syrian influence, may go down the Syrian path of armed conflict?

NG: Well, indeed this is a challenge for the central government, and I think what happened in Arsal was because of the delay and the serious decisions that should’ve been taken by the government ever since the spillover of the refugees in the country. And let me say a few words about the refugees. I think our big mistake that we did, as compared to other countries neighboring Syria, such as Turkey and Jordan, is that we announced that we are avoiding, we are delineating the Syrian conflict and we are away from it. But in fact, in truth and reality, we were getting involved more and more. So I think with this delay, yes, we have a challenge. For example, in the city of Tripoli on its own we have almost 150,000 refugees – or we would like to call them ‘displaced’ rather than refugees, because the word ‘refugee’ brings back bad memories with the Palestinian refugees who have been waiting to go back to their home since 1948. So those Syrian displaced, yes, they came in as guests, but now I think we have a problem with our guests, a problem of food, of security, and I think the government is facing a real challenge how to cope with it.

SS:Yes, but can I ask you something, though: is it just bad memories and how to cope with food and sheltering, or is the government afraid of extremists posing as refugees?

NG: Oh, I think it’s both ways.

SS: Because you’re saying, there are some 30,000 refugees in Tripoli, but there are over 1 million Syrian refugees altogether in Lebanon.

NG: It’s 150,000 in Tripoli on its own. You know, for a city of 600,000 people, you add to it 150,000 – that’s quite a lot. So what I said, the central government is facing a challenge of security, a challenge of moving in the people with the resistance, with the Syrian Free Army and those who are with the regime to bring in the fighting inside Lebanon, and I think this is the main challenge. But added to this main challenge we’re talking about the social and economic challenge also, in a country which already is facing and suffering from economic and social challenges, as you know very well.

SS:Here is another interesting moment: Lebanon is receiving aid in the fight against ISIS from both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and these two are actually regional rivals. Does the aid come with strings attached, are those powers competing for influence in your country? What is it?

NG: Well, I’m happy that those two powers now are looking at us as a vortex for them. So yes, we are happy that we are receiving those funds – as a country, I’m saying – but I’m hopeful that those funds will come in without any strings around them. I’m looking forward to see real support without any political conditions. As a mayor and, at the same time, as a civil leader, I’m strongly with having support, financial support, but free support without any political conditions.

SS:But when does that really happen? Does that really ever happen? I mean, you are a politician, you’ve been around for a while… Does financial or political support ever happen for no reason, with no strings attached?

NG: Well, I think it is the balance of power that is governing the acts of these superpowers in the region. I think it is a matter of balance of power and managing their interest, it is very clear for us.

SS:OK. Let me just ask you something, I just want to get your view on this. Is the US-led bombing campaign helping contain the ISIS terrorists? Do you feel it’s working?

NG: Well, this is an issue that is related to the region. I think indeed, the US bombing does support the elimination, or maybe at least the reduction of ISIS, but I think what you need really is something on the ground, other than providing the support for people who are fighting for their freedom… Staying up in the air, there will be more damage in the streets of Syria and in the streets of Iraq. But again, what you need really is to support the people who are fighting for their freedom on the ground – that’s what will help much more.

SS:You say that we need something on the ground, what if the US involvement turns into war on the ground? Would Lebanon welcome US soldiers back on its territory?

NG: You know, I’m talking about ISIS, Iraq and Syria now, because as you know, thank God, we don’t have such an issue, a strong issue in Lebanon. But what I meant is that we already are fighting against ISIS, it’s already there, and what difference does it make between fighting them in the air and fighting them on the ground? If you want to finish the job and not keep it drag on and on and on, and drain the resources of the region and get the money from the region just to blow up some tanks here or some barricades or bunkers there... I think what we need really is to finish the job and to finish it as quickly as possible, because both sides: the citizens of Syria and citizens of Iraq, they are already tired and many of them are being killed as innocents because they are caught in the middle.

SS:I hear you, I mean, everyone wants this thing finished. But from what it looks like, the US is not able to contain the ISIS or take out the ISIS leadership for now. Why is that? Is the group that powerful?

NG: Well, you should ask those who created this group. I think it’s a decision that needs to be made, wise and serious decision that needs to be made to really avoid much of damage and much of destruction and calamities in the region. Syria and Iraq, they need to rest a bit, they’ve been suffering for a long time – I’m talking about the Iraqi people and Iraq as a country, and now we have the Syrians. I think it’s about time to see very clearly who is right and who is wrong, and I think the decision-makers on the global level, they know very well who is right and who is wrong. They know who insisted on having Da’ish, ISIS, to be that strong and to spread that quickly and to spill over from Iraq to Syria.

SS:Who insists on ISIS being so strong? Who is it, in your opinion?

NG: Well, they know themselves very well. I mean, it’s like getting a rabbit out of that hat like a magician, when all of a sudden we have this Da’ish overwhelmingly taking over places and places and governorates in Iraq and getting over to Syria. It’s not a coincidence and it’s not a surprise thing, you know. It’s a very well-prepared thing, and I think the intelligence would not miss this information before it happens.

SS:And finally, what do you think – will Lebanon be willing to step in the fight against ISIS if needed? Lebanese army, for instance?

NG: Well, I think we are much weaker of a country to get involved into fighting. I think what we need really at this time is to focus on our problems. You know, we have a country with no president – it’s like having a body without a head. So how would you think about making such big and directional strategic decisions, to get involved in a fighting… And we have already our traumas, we have our injuries, our turmoil. And we have our own political problems added to social and economic problems. So I think it’s not wise for Lebanon, as a weak country especially nowadays, to get involved in whatsoever issues related to Da’ish or other terrorist groups.

SS:Thank you so much for this interesting insight. We were talking to dr. Nader al-Ghazel, mayor of the Lebanese city of Tripoli, a city badly affected by the spillover from Syria civil war. We were talking about how the city is managing to fight back extremist forces like ISIS and al-Nusra. Thanks for this edition of Sophie&Co, we’ll see you next time.

NG: Thank you very much.