icon bookmark-bicon bookmarkicon cameraicon checkicon chevron downicon chevron lefticon chevron righticon chevron upicon closeicon v-compressicon downloadicon editicon v-expandicon fbicon fileicon filtericon flag ruicon full chevron downicon full chevron lefticon full chevron righticon full chevron upicon gpicon insicon mailicon moveicon-musicicon mutedicon nomutedicon okicon v-pauseicon v-playicon searchicon shareicon sign inicon sign upicon stepbackicon stepforicon swipe downicon tagicon tagsicon tgicon trashicon twicon vkicon yticon wticon fm
12 Nov, 2018 07:50

Intl summits useless in finding solution to Syria – ex-PM of Lebanon

Political divisions risk shaking the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon. Can the country stand firm with the Syrian war still raging right across the border? We talked to the former prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora.

Follow @SophieCo_RT

Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr. Fouad Siniora, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us today. Mr. Siniora, after five months of political deadlock, Lebanon is close to forming a new government. Hezbollah's allies have made significant gains in the last parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Hariri has said many times that Hezbollah is not the main player and they do not control things in Lebanon. But they are backed by the Christians, by the President. Is the Prime Minister just putting on a brave face here, trying to play down Hezbollah's role?

Fouad Siniora: Well, there's nothing actually to be hidden about the role that Hezbollah is playing and the interference they are really having in all affairs and making it sure that they are the ones who are calling the shots. Effectively, they have created a new problem, that was not there actually, in which they were insisting and they are still insisting that some of the Sunni sects really are very much abiding by their instructions Hezbollah instructions, Syrian regime's instructions, that they want to be represented in the new cabinet. Although, actually, on the one hand, after being elected they do not really appear as one block, to the contrary – they are parts of other blocks. So in fact what they are doing - they are being considered twice: once as being members of their own blocks, parliamentary blocks, and another time as combining themselves to be one unit, which is not the case.

SS: At this point we cannot ignore their presence, right, as they are in the government? United States have rolled out sanctions targeting individuals and organisations doing business with Hezbollah. So what is going to happen in Lebanon now that Hezbollah is kind of present in its government?

FS: Definitely, Lebanon is facing quite a number of issues nowadays, not only this, as there are plenty of things. And one of these is the tsunami coming from the sanctions that are being, let's say, imposed by the United States, and this, in fact, will affect Iran, will affect Hezbollah, and all the agencies of Iran all over the world, and besides that in Lebanon. That's why it requires a great deal of real thinking and trying to dissociate Lebanon from what's happening in the region, otherwise it will appear as if Lebanon is putting itself in the passage of the elephants, and there is definitely nothing that can save Lebanon in this regard. That's why we believe that even Hezbollah and the Iranians should really make sure not to rock the boat in this regard and cause more problems for Lebanon. I believe that the situation is very delicate and sensitive and this requires a great deal of forward looking and making sure to avoid furthering problems in Lebanon, otherwise everybody will suffer.

SS: Like you said the situation is very fragile. For Washington, Hezbollah is one of many terrorists groups – and I mean, from the other side of the world you can see that makes sense, these people blow things up, take hostages, attack civilians, etc. But for Lebanon, Hezbollah is part and parcel of the land, an inevitable part of the fragile balance, part of coexistence. Is the Lebanese government trying to explain this nuance to the Americans, are you getting your point across in Washington?

FS: Definitely the situation is fragile, I don't hide that, I mean it is known. And definitely Lebanon is attempting to clarify its position but it has to made more clear. Definitely putting Lebanon in such a situation - it will be unable to convince people in Washington about the importance of keeping Lebanon away from being subject to major shocks that will come out of these sanctions. Hence, it is something that has to start to make Lebanon and, particularly, Hezbollah to be more cautious and aware and not really cause more problems than we can take in our plate. But at the same time more diplomatic efforts have to be made by Lebanese government and the people who are in charge. It is not in the interest of anyone to rock the boat in Lebanon.

SS: Israel has recently announced that Hezbollah is using hideouts in the Lebanese capital to make missiles and if need to be Israel is ready to fight a war with Lebanon over this. You led Lebanon through a war with Israel, you know Israel's methods – is this just a regular Netanyahu bravado or is he really ready to strike Beirut again?

FS: There is not secret at all for anybody that Hezbollah has plenty of rockets and with high precision, as Hassan Nasrallah has said, but I don't think it is really wise to give Israel any excuse in attacking Lebanon. In fact I really blame Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah for saying all these statements that, in fact, would give an excuse for Israel to really attack Lebanon. Mind you, that during the past 30 years Lebanon has been subject to six invasions from Israel. Six invasions – practically, every five years are having one, let's say, and this definitely cannot help Lebanon.

SS:You said yourself, everyone knows that Hezbollah has rockets, it's no secret. Saad Hariri said that when Israel treats Lebanon and Hezbollah as part of the same entity, it feeds Hezbollah propaganda, making it actually stronger. But in a situation like this, when Hezbollah is stashing missiles in the dungeons below Beirut, how else should Israel be seeing this situation?

FS: I think, I made it clear that nobody is denying the fact that Hezbollah has rockets, and they said it, Hassan Nasrallah said it, and those are of high precision types, but the thing is that to say this now and then and so on and so forth is endangering Lebanon one way or another or giving Israel an excuse. Some people say Israel doesn't need any excuse to attack Lebanon, - well, irrespective – but giving them another excuse – I don't think it is helpful for Lebanon. That's why we believe that Lebanon has to, really, again make sure to have its policies that are destined to serve Lebanon and not to let Lebanon fight the battles of other countries, i.e. to fight the battle of Iran. Lebanon cannot afford to do that, and effectively Hezbollah until the year 2000 was fighting, let's say, for the sake of Lebanon in order for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon and that's what really happened. Again, something that happened in 2006 was something that we dealt with in the best manner possible and we navigated in very difficult waters, but ultimately, after that Hezbollah is really playing in the interests of Iran and fighting its own battles. And at the same time it's interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries, and there are plenty of cases in which  Hezbollah appeared to be fighting these battles, including the interference in Syria which really ultimately led to this exodus of large number of Syrian refugees, coming to Lebanon to the level of 1.2-1.3 million of Syrian refugees. It is not our duty and not our responsibility to fight on behalf of others or to put Lebanon in a very risky situation in which we would be really suffering a lot from any attack that may be committed by Israel.

SS: Mr. Siniora, your Prime Minister is a frequent guest in Saudi Arabia. Saad Hariri has been there recently as he was trying to form the government. Last year he went missing, then showed up in Saudi Arabia and announced his resignation, but revoked it as soon as he got back to Lebanon. Some might have the impression that Lebanon's crucial decisions are being taken in Riyadh. What is this strange relationship with Saudi Arabia all about?

FS: Well, in fact, that's not true and not true at all. Prime Minister Saad Hariri was raised in Saudi Arabia, had a lot of businesses from his father and afterwards in Saudi Arabia, and the relations of Rafik Hariri during, let’s say, the times when he was Prime Minister, even much closer to Saudi Arabia, and never ever dared anybody to say that he was being influenced by Saudi Arabia. I believe that there are very good relationships, but in fact, forgetting about what happened a year ago, - and I think that was a mistake, and what we can say is that we closed that chapter – other than that the relationship are going throughout the past for several decades since the independence of Lebanon. Actually the relationship of Saudi Arabia with Lebanon has been always cordial, friendly, they never interfere the domestic affairs of Lebanon, coming to the support of Lebanon every now and then, and in all big incidents and definitely the most difficult events that took place in Lebanon, the first country to come to the support of Lebanon was Saudi Arabia, including actually the Taif Agreement that was really the beginning of putting an end to the Lebanese civil war, was done in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis played a very important role in it. I’m not denying the role of any other country, but this is to say that Saudi Arabia was the main supporter of Lebanon and never interfered in the domestic affairs of Lebanon, as some other countries are doing nowadays.  

SS: Last year we actually spoke to Saad Hariri, and he said that the atmosphere in Lebanon reminds him of that time when his father, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated. Do you have the same feeling? 

FS: Well, definitely I can’t really draw any similarities between what’s happening now and what happened on the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri. But I can really say that Lebanon is passing through very difficult times, whether it is the economic and fiscal situation on the one hand, whether it has to do with the status in which the role and the influence of the state of Lebanon over its affairs,  - I’m talking about the presence of the party in Lebanon that is, let’s say, armed to the teeth and is really interfering in the domestic affairs of the country and calling the shots in every issue. That is actually causing the disintegration of the Lebanese state as such. And the third situation has to do with the non-abidance with the declared policy of Lebanon regarding the dissociation of Lebanon from the affairs of the region. These are really stormy issues that would require a very strong position in order to navigate in these troubled waters in the right manner and to avoid any accident. So that is the situation. On the other hand, for sure, those who really want to make trouble in Lebanon, they may cause a problem. We have to close the windows through which some people might interfere in this regard. Lebanon did a good job with its security situation in order to prevent terrorism from coming into Lebanon, and all the Lebanese are well-united in this regard, they don’t want terrorism, they don’t want to naturalise the Palestinian or the Syrian refugees. They are all united, and there’s no need to create problems out of that. 

SS: Like you said, Lebanon is in a very difficult situation also economically because it is currently hosting more than a million of Syrian refugees. Some have started to return to areas, which are thought to be relatively safe, but the war is still not over, and too many still remain in Lebanon. How much further can your country sustain this refugee population? 

FS: Well, if you want to compare the size of Lebanon and its population, Lebanon has surpassed all numbers available in any other country. Lebanon has received about 1.5 million of Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqis which is more than 35% of its total population. I don’t think it’s the number that any other country in the world has ever had. Definitely this is causing a great, devastating problem to Lebanon. And Lebanon has to seek help of its sister countries as well as the international community. In fact, what Lebanon has been receiving in terms of support does not at all correspond with the scale of this exodus of people. At the same time Lebanon has to be able to continue serving these people in the best possible and humane manner. The situation in Syria, in particular, is still not ready for finding a solution for the Syrian refugees. In fact, we want them to leave tomorrow, and rather yesterday. But Lebanon cannot force them to leave, and this is not the way that we should really deal with them. It has to be voluntary, humanely and safely for the Syrian refugees. We have to really find the solution. It’s not actually asking the international community to help Lebanon so that it can keep the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, though it’s definitely something that we want in the short term, but in the medium term and every day there should be an effort to find a permanent solution to end the war in Syria. This is the solution for the Syrian refugees. We’ve heard about the summit that took place in Istanbul where the four countries have expressed their views, but they are still disagreeing on their own priorities. This doesn’t help in finding the solution. I believe that all the players in the region are getting tired, and the fatigue is really creeping. Something has to be done to have a joint effort among all the concerned and the players in finding a real solution. Otherwise this is going to add up to furthering risks.   

SS: Last time we spoke you said that Assad should step down. Five years on, and even the Western leaders who were first adamant about toppling him, now recognise that no political solution is possible in Syria without Assad. What about you? What do you think today? 

FS: Let me tell you something. I’d like to be very frank with you. I have to draw an example from my background in the field of finance. They say that the manager who drove his company towards the bankruptcy cannot be appointed to be in charge of reforming this company or the bankruptcy proceedings. Effectively, President Assad hasn’t been able to manage Syria properly, he could have avoided the whole problem altogether had he had the real vision and thorough thinking and an ability to embrace his own people. This was in 2011. Since then he has been responsible for the destruction of most parts of Syria, for the deaths of over 500 thousand people, and for the fact that the refugees are 50% of the Syrians in and outside of Syria. Besides, who’s going to rebuild Syria? Do you think Assad can really create the confidence that is necessary among all the donor countries helping rebuild Syria? I don’t think that. I don’t want to take any revenge. To the contrary, I believe that we have to come to terms in one important fact which is that there’s no military solution in Syria. This has been the most important conclusion that we have to understand and to work accordingly. 

SS: Mr. Siniora, thank you very much for this interview. Thank you for your thoughts and your insight on the situation in your country and around it. It was great having you on our programme.  

FS: Thank you.

SS: We were talking to Fouad Siniora, former Lebanese Prime Minister, discussing the situation in Lebanon and its complex political tensions.