Lebanese PM: Russia’s de-escalation zones in Syria a way to eventual peace in the country

The state of Lebanon has provided shelter for millions fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq, wars almost on the country's doorstep. Moreover, Lebanon itself has endured a bloody civil war, but managed to reconcile and find a path to peace and prosperity. Can Lebanon be the model for a Syrian solution? Or will the Syrian tragedy revive the ghosts of Lebanon’s own violent past? We ask the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Mr. Saad Hariri, on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Saad Hariri, Lebanese Prime Minister it’s really great to have you on our show, welcome.

SH:Thank you.

SS:You’ve been on a world tour of sorts recently - going to Washington, Paris, securing military and financial aid. Now  that trip brings you to Moscow - what exact steps do you hope Russia can do for  Lebanon?

SH:Russia is playing a political role, a big political role in the region and I believe that… you know, Lebanon is suffering from refugees, from the conflict that is happening in Syria, Iraq and my first aim is to alienate Lebanon from any consequences that are happening in Syria and other places. Russia also… we’ve had a very good political relationship with Russia, and I would like the economic relations to develop. So far we haven’t had economic level of enhancement like in our political relationship. So now I aim to enhance this relationship economically. At the same time we believe that we should also try to do some work with the military here in russia. We face the same problem, terrorism is everywhere, and we want to face that kind of terrorism with our allies.

SS:I understand about the economic ties, but obviously, today, with the world we’re living in, all the focus is on the military aid. Why the drive for military assistance from all those different sources right now, why now?

SH:You know, Lebanon has faced a battle, just a few weeks ago, with ISIS. We fear that this is going to be a long fight against ISIS and we believe that enhancing our military capabilities is very important. We’ve had very good programs with the American Army, we’ve also had some good programs with the French and we believe… in the history, we’ve had a lot of equipment from Russia, so we need to get some much more modern weapons for Lebanese armed forces and our security forces. This fight is something that we need to face and we need to face it with the best technology.

SS:So, you’ve mentioned recent battle. But the Lebanese Army was actually victorious in the fight against ISIS in Ras Ballbek. Do you feel right now that you can maybe take upon more proactive role, when it comes to fighting ISIS and contribute to the coalition and their fight against ISIS, or are you going to limit yourself to the Lebanese territory.

SH:First of all, I want to secure my territories, I want to make sure that Lebanon is protected. We already have a lot of relationship with Russian intelligence, other intelligence, we are doing our efforts with cooperation with whatever information that we have and the expertise. In Lebanon we have excelled at catching those terrorists, before them doing anything. In the past 3 years we haven’t had any accidents, we were able to catch them before any results from their side. And this is something we pride ourselves and we would like to continue in this venue, and in order to do so we need some technology to continue doing what we’re doing and this cooperation has also helped in catching a lot of terrorists around the world. For instance, a month back, we were able to capture some terrorists that were planning to do something on some airline in Lebanon - I think it was Australian airliner - so we were able to capture them and we feel good about this.

SS:I want to talk in more broad terms. The current American president has blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for being inactive in the Middle East. Can you see the difference in the American approach now, and what do you, as Lebanese PM, expect from Trump? How can he change or help the middle east?

SH:I think the results are obvious, what you see in Iraq, what you see in Syria today, the fight against ISIS is much more focused, it’s much more cooperative between the nations that are fighting ISIS and we see that ISIS is losing battlegrounds everywhere, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, and we hope that focus on this issue is to try to diminish or exterminate ISIS. Another problem, we believe, also is: why is there ISIS? What’s the reason ISIS is in Iraq, what’s the reason you have ISIS in Syria? And I believe, my concern is, we fought, all of us, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and everywhere in the world, but the real reason of why this kind of organisation exist is the problem. In Iraq, if they won’t forge a real partnership between sects, my concern, and even in Syria, my concern is that you might find these kinds of groups, but if you don’t have real partnership, real political solution, long-term partnership between the people - then this is not the solution. Unless you forge these partnerships, unless people see that there’s no difference between Syrian and another - then my concern is that we will have something worse than ISIS. The important thing is to have a viable political solution that everybody’s happy with.

SS:You know, I was speaking not too long ago to another great Lebanese man, Nassim Taleb, and when we were speaking about the Syrian war, he said  that the Lebanese way out of its own civil war could serve as an example for Syria. Do you feel, maybe, that power-sharing agreements, decentralization, that could work in Syria like it did in your country?

SH:I believe that partnership is important to forge. The Lebanese solution is quite effective. We were able to keep the stability, especially in times when we saw destruction all around us in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq. I think it could be a solution, but it’s up to the Syrians. At the end of the day, we, Lebanese, sat at one table and agreed to stop the civil war. But later on, we have to build the trust, you know, coalitions, reconciliation, and this is something very hard to be done. And with what’s happening now between Americans and Russians and Turks, Saudis, Iranians - I think this is important.

SS:But, I mean, obviously, a lot of people bring up the example of your country, Lebanon because it has been torn by the civil war and it is the best example of how after the civil war you can co-exist with each other.

SH:Absolutely.

SS:First of all, I want to talk to you about the impact the Syrian war is having on your country. Do you think that threats like what happened in Tripoli is in the past, or something like that can happen again?

SH:Yeah, it’s in the past. Today you have a much stronger political resolve in facing any instability in Lebanon. I think this consensus government has taken extremely important decisions, and I think the way we’re trying to deal with all conflict inside the government… you have to understand, Lebanon, we have the government that has the consensus, but at the same time we differ on the strategic issues. So, I might not be with Assad, but other political parties are with Assad, but we don’t make  a fuss about it inside the government. So what we are  trying to stabilize today is the economy of the country, the stability of the country, the security of the country, and all the political arguments we might have, we discuss them outside any government.

SS:But how do you hammer out a united line when it comes to Assad - because like you’ve said, you are opposing Assad, Michel Aoun is supporting him, speaker of the Parliament is somewhat friendly towards Damascus… How do you come up with a common line?

SH:We don’t come up with a common line. We decided to alienate Lebanon from all these political and strategic decisions and we say that we are trying to become like Switzerland, in a way, where we don’t want to involve ourselves in those quarrels, and safeguard the benefit of the country.

SS:So you never want to be directly involved in the peacemaking process in Syria?

SH:What’s important for us is the return of the refugees and I believe today you have almost 8or 9  million Syrian refugees around the world, and I think any political solution that does not look at this issue specifically is a solution that is not going to fly. I think, the importance is to make sure that these refugees go back to Syria, to safe places, and they should be part of the process. Anything short of that is not going to be viable as a political solution.

SS:But you feel like your government is ready to send the refugees back to Syria because the conditions in Syria now are safe enough or is it the case of Lebanon has its limits?

SH:No,no. Lebanon has its limits, first of all, but we are bound with all international resolutions and human rights. We believe if they are to go Syria, they need to go back to a safe zone, safe areas that the UN approves, that a political solution includes the return of refugees.

SS:So you’re just going to wait till the moment is right?

SH:Yes.

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SS:I’ve read in an interview to POLITICO you’ve said that “if you want to solve the issue of Syria” - that’s your quote -”you’ve got to talk to the Russians”. I know, you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to be directly involved in a peace-making process when it comes to Syria, yet, your position and the position of Russia differ on key issues when it comes to Syria. Can there be common ground between Lebanon and Russia when it comes to that civil war?

SS:Absolutely. What’s important to see is that today you have this almost safe-zone areas, or they call it now… where they have less fighting in southern part of Syria. I think the reason these areas exist is because there are real talks between  the Americans and the Russians and different political parties, or countries like Turkey, like Jordan, like Iran, like Saudi Arabia. This is a serious political solution, or this is a part of the solution, a preparation for the solution to come. These areas are being developed in all parts of Syria. We agree on them, we encourage them, because you see less fighting, less killing and this is something that would enhance, or, maybe, set up the road towards a political solution.

SS:So you brought up the three branches of your government and you differ on things, but you don’t take it out in a public, you deal with it behind the scenes, and it’s true that the political system in Lebanon is spectacular in terms of how you can allocate same amount of power to each of the main religion branches. And it has worked really well after the devastating civil war - but do you sometimes feel like this system needs revamping, because it hinders decision-making? Or do you think that shaking up things may be too dangerous right now?

SH:What you need to understand about Lebanon is that after the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Lebanese went through a learning process. Beforehand, you had the Syrian army inside Lebanon until 2005. And it was by proxy, the Syrians were somehow controlling Lebanon. This is the first time after Syrians pulled from Lebanon, the Syrian regime pulled from Lebanon. The first time, after the civil war, the Lebanese are trying to manage their country by themselves, so we’ve had few experiences, an experience where part of the country was trying to run the country by themselves. That didn’t work. Then another time where we tried to unify our efforts to run the country, then another, 8th of March [Alliance], tried to run the country by themselves. I think, the system today, with this consensus government is trying to balance the Constitution that we have. We can always better it, but I  believe that this is an experience that the Lebanese people have to go through and the Lebanese authorities have to go through and political parties, so we can get to the balance where we know how to rule the country.

SS:You’ve also said recently that right now you’re focused on improving the situation with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. What can Lebanon do here? I mean, it’s kind of far.

SH:There’s a dialogue that Kuwait is trying to lead. I believe this dialogue is important for the Gulf. We decided not to get involved directly because we do not… the differences that they have between each other, they know them much better than we do, and so we will stay far away from this problem, but we encourage, all the time, the dialogue that Kuwaitis are trying to lead.

SS:So you are Switzerland in that?

SH:I’m trying as Switzerland as I can be.

SS:But Lebanese government has been investing in Iraqi Kurdistan, and now we have the referendum of independence that’s approaching - so I wonder what your position will be vis-a-vis a possible independent Kurdish state?

SH:This is something between the Iraqis. We believe that a unified Iraq is far better for Iraq, and unified Syria is far better for Syria. We believe this notion of ‘dividing’ of countries like this will only serve to minimize the capacity of the Iraqis as a country. I believe the Kurds and the Arabs in Iraq can work together, can come a conclusion where the Kurds feel they have their own autonomy, in one way or another, like we try sometimes in Lebanon. I think dividing countries is only fuelling the conflicts in the region. I believe the unified Iraq is the solution.

SS:I’ve heard you say many times that Hezbollah is not the main force in Lebanon and certianly not the main player, it’s not controlling the country. Now, it’s heavily involved in the Syrian war. It is easier to deal with them now that they’re distracted with their pro-Assad, anti-ISIS campaign?

SH:I think, we should understand that Assad regime has tried to survive all these years, and the only reason it did survive is because of Russia and maybe the other players playing with the regime. But the main force that was able to stabilize Syria was the policy that Russia took towards the regime, towards fighting ISIS and all of that. I think, Hezbollah’s role, you know my position, you can disagree with it, but at the same time the main reason today there’s Bashar Assad is because the positions Russia took.

SS:But, you just came back from America and you’ve stated many times that Lebanese army has nothing to do with Hezbollah, it’s completely independent. Are you, though, worried, that maybe, American Congressmen not make a difference between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army? Not do their research?

SH:You know, it’s a propaganda war. In some places we have the Israeli lobbyists that go on trying to put this idea that the Lebanese army is controlled by Hezbollah, and this is not…

SS:We know it’s not, but are you worried about Americans maybe cutting aid, because they don’t understand the situation?

SH:We had long discussions with the American administration and Congress and Senate and I believe that we achieved some success. I believe that we should keep on this campaign in showing what really Lebanon is. We just fought a war against ISIS and Hezbollah wasn’t in it. Israel will always try to put Lebanon as a proxy, but we are no proxy for anyone.

SS:Talking about Israel, you’ve sent a request to the UN to facilitate the signing of the truce between Lebanon and Israel, because officially the two countries are still at war. Why hasn’t it been signed yet, what’s coming in a way, what’s blocking it?

SH:We need to stop the hostilities between the two countries. After the war there was a period where we need to move actually to the cessation of hostilities and other parts of this agreement supposed to be implemented. Unfortunately, Israel keeps budging into the Lebanese airspace, Lebanese maritime borders and sometimes we find some cameras hidden somewhere in Lebanon, implanted by Israelis. This is something that needs to stop. We believe that we’ve gone a long way. If you look at 2006, you’ll see so many different border, different positions that we thought are ours and the Israelis thought that they’re theirs. Now we came down to 13 points, and now we still have the maritime quarrel between us and Israel. With this new Administration in the U.S. there’s engagement on these issues and I believe that we can reach certain agreements.

SS:Now Israel is saying Hamas is now establishing a foothold in Lebanon - is there any truth to these claims?

SH:No. I think Israel just wants to put Lebanon as an evil country and they think… we all know what Israel is doing.

SS:It’s also holding its largest military drills in 20 years right next to your border, simulating a repeat of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Are you concerned, are you worried, or is it this technical maneuvers and nothing to worry about?

SH:I’m worried about the campaign or the propaganda with which Israel is trying to put Lebanon as a country that is not going to control its army and security forces. We understand… what we want in Lebanon is the implementation of Resolution 1701 to the dot. We are ready to go all the way on this issue. All the political parties are ready in Lebanon. Is Israel ready? The problem is, Israel throws all these kinds of campaign on Lebanon, but yet when you come, really, on the ground and try to implement the resolution - they will not.

SS:So what really gets on your nerves, basically, is the propaganda more than anything else, but it’s not the real threat that there could be another war between the two countries?

SH:I’m concerned, because Israel’s rhetoric on this propaganda has been heightening ever since, and I think they need to understand that we don’t want war, I don’t think they want war, so it’s better not to instigate, and the best way to move away from war is actually to implement things on the ground. So if we have 13 border points that we have still different opinions about, there triparteid between us and the UN and Israel, meetings are monthly, we need to resolve these issues at once. We need to take the pretext of any war away from anybody and see how we move towards the cessation of hostilities between us and them.

SS:Prime Minster, you are no stranger to threats. Your father tragically died in a political assassination, you also had reasons for a while to be out of Lebanon. Have things changed? Do you think this threat is in the past, or now that you’re PM, you’re even in more danger?

SH:I think that I’ve gathered more enemies these days, the ISIS and Al-Qaeda and all of these political groups, but I think my security are doing good job and it’s a part of the job. It comes with it in this part of our region, we have to be careful, but it’s there, just manage it.

SS:We wish you all the best of luck, and you hopefully you’ll come back to Russia again, soon.

SH:Thank you.