General Aoun: ‘Assad still has the majority of the people’

Syrian war - blood and sorrow mixed up in the fights of all against all. The chaos is frightening and confusing. Millions of lives off track, splashed over the neighboring countries. Lebanon is one of them, absorbing a tsunami of refugees and trying to lock the conflict outside of its borders. How successful is this attempt? Will Lebanon take sides in the conflict? Who can stop killings in Syria? Sophie travels to Beirut to talk to General Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army Commander, currently a politician and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:General Michel Aoun, thank you very much for being with RT.

Michel Aoun:You’re welcome.

SS:A year ago, when you were asked about the conflict in Syria, you’ve expressed confidence, that the opposition would lose. You still think so?

MA: Well, they lost already.

SS:How?

MA: There’s now a deal between Russia and the US about the crisis, and it’s started by a measure of, let’s say, compromising between Syria and the U.S. in giving up its weapons, and then it will not be for nothing. Syria has to get something for that. So, the process will continue to reach a final settlement.

SS:But, the opposition is heavily financed by the Saudis and the West – the Western countries aren’t even hiding that they are actually supplying arms to the Syrian opposition.

MA: Well, we are in the beginning, and then you will see the crisis changing its face, I think that the fate of the extremists now is decided, and they will be chased away from Syria.

SS:Talking about extremists, President Assad says that he defines the opposition in two different groups: there are the ones who care for the Syrian people, who want good for their country, and then there are jihadists, the extremists, who actually kill and torture people, but they also call themselves the opposition. Do you agree with that definition?

MA: Certainly. I think there is not two sides in Syria – the extremists, who are coming from everywhere of the Islamic world and they are paid to do the war, they are not only Syrians, just 50% of them, this are strangers, so those with some of people of Syria are not fighting for the democracy, they are fighting for extremists and the Islamic regime, and who doesn’t fit with the plans of the people of Syria.

SS:We just saw recently Syrian faith being decided between world players between the West, Russia and China, not the Arab world, which is also quite strange – do you think they are world players who really are working in the best interest of Syria or it’s just political gaming between the big powers?

MA: I think they are going to withdraw from the battle, for they are not strong enough to continue the war without the support of the western countries.

SS:The opposition, you mean?

MA: Yes, certainly.

SS: But you don’t think the west will continue to finance the opposition and supply arms to them?

MA: No, I don’t believe they will continue.

SS:You also have said that Israel benefits from this conflict in Syria – why do you think so?

MA: Not too much.

SS:So, it wouldn’t be in the interest of Israel for Assad to fall, right?

MA: I don’t think so, because the regime which will be in place, it will be against Israel and in a short while Israel will find itself seized from every side by this people.

SS:But just imagine, just imagine that Assad falls, he loses the presidency – what would that mean for the region?

MA: The victory of the extremists will destroy the hope for democracy in a short time, so it will last indefinitely.

SS:And for Lebanon?

MA: For everybody, because Lebanon will fail too.

SS:Assad has recently said that whoever wants to dismantle his chemical arsenal for $1 billion in one year is welcome to do it. Do you think there’ll be volunteers to do this, who would be those people who will actually take care of that?

MA: Maybe he is asking the price of these weapons. Maybe he will get all of this, maybe not. But I think that at least he will give up the chemical arsenal.

SS:But who do you think will dismantle the chemical arsenal? Who will actually go into Syria and dismantle his chemical stockpile?

MA: I think it’s going to be international community with some technical people, specialized in that matter, will come and do the job under the auspices of the UN.

SS: There are reports that Assad may be transferring his chemical stockpiles to Hezbollah to hide them from the international community.

MA: No, I don’t think that’s true at all.

SS: Do you think Hezbollah may have chemical weapons?

MA: No, no, it’s forbidden by religious law to use these weapons.

SS:It’s also forbidden in Syria, but someone used it.

MA: No, they are not Hezbollah; Hezbollah will not use these weapons. I know that’s its forbidden.

SS: I’m going to read out your quote from an interview this summer: “We’re against the intervention in the absolute sense, but a series of security incidents forces those who are responsible to intervene.” But isn’t that the same logic behind what Obama was proposing – a local strike?

MA: I don’t think so.

SS:What did you mean in this quote?

MA: I am absolutely against any intervention, foreign intervention in Syria, but practically they are intervening by sending weapons to Al-Nursa, Al-Qaeda, they are… well, all the logistics is made by Turkey and by Jordan. So, they are intervening, only in an indirect way.

SS: You know, right now it seems that we may have found a diplomatic solution, but the option to strike Syria is still there, no one is going to give you a guarantee that America isn’t going to strike it. What do you think?

MA: I don’t think that, within the US they don’t have the conditions to do this strike. The American people, which are the first decision agency in the US, refuse to do this strike. I don’t think also that the condition of the US economy allows the possibility to do it. There are many constraints on the Americans, so they cannot do the attack.

SS:I’m going to read another quote of yours: “The West considers human rights as a marketing slogan, not a true principle according to which they behave.” What did you mean by this?

MA: I mean they don’t respect human rights; they make propaganda with human rights, that’s like just a commercial. They speak about it, but they don’t respect it.

SS:But many would argue that Assad, for example, is also committing horrible human rights abuses, just as much as the opposition, and he’s equally responsible for the war crimes, just like the opposition.

MA: I don’t think what’s going on in Syria is right, but they are defending themselves, and both parties have to respect the international conventions of Geneva and the appendix of this convention. If they don’t respect it from both sides, everybody will cry, will shout, will say anything, but nobody will hear, nobody will see. That’s a vocal protest, no more.

SS: I have spoken to many Syrians and their opinion about President Assad varies. President Assad himself says he wouldn’t have been able to stay in power this long unless he had the support of the Syrian people. Do you think the majority of Syrians support him?

MA: The Syrian people saw the atrocities made by the revolution or the opposition. And so they started to reject the opposition – even if in the beginning they were supporting it. I think he still has the majority of the Syrian people.

SS: So you believe people who were opposing Assad in the beginning are on his side now because they just don’t want the Islamist opposition?

MA: A large part of them.

SS:What about Syrian refugees in Lebanon? There are about 1 million of them here. What is their status? As I understand, Lebanon wasn’t even able to give them a camp, like Jordan did? Are they in a free flow? What are they doing? How are they doing?

MA: They are going everywhere. The first waves of refugees found homes, but the others didn’t. When winter starts, it will be a big problem for them.

SS:According to an article I read recently, unemployment in Lebanon doubled in just one year because of the Syrian refugee exodus to Lebanon.

MA: Well, it is not up to us to do all the job for them. We need the help of the United Nations. And we’ll ask the refugees to come back to Syria, because Syria is 18 times larger than Lebanon.

SS:But Syria is not going to be functional any time soon. Even if the war ends, it’s a country devastated by war. So you can’t go back if you’re in Lebanon already. Looks like these refugees will be staying in Lebanon. What are you going to do with them?

MA: There are many safe areas in Syria. As I said, it is 18 times bigger than Lebanon. In many safe areas they can build camps for them.

SS:So you just want them to go back.

MA: And I think the United Nations will be ready to help them there, not here, we don’t have the areas to contain all those people.

SS:What about the jobs? You don’t have jobs either?

MA: Right now we are about 600 people per square kilometer. We are overcrowded here.

SS:What about Palestinian refugees? They’ve been in Lebanon for a while now, they’re still not naturalized. How come?

MA: How come? Because there is another anti-Arab decision to keep their national identity until they go back to their country, because all nations promised them to recognize the national home for Palestinians. So they are waiting for the United Nations to keep its promise.

SS:What do you think of the Arab Spring phenomenon? What has it done to the world?

MA: All the bad things. They have revolutions, civil wars, nations’ resources are destroyed. They only have fights, they are not growing. What more than that can you have?

SS: You know, with Arab Spring going on, and the Syrian crisis next door, how safe do you feel in Lebanon?

MA: We’ll have side effects. We’ll have more crimes, we’ll have some difficulties in our economy. We’ll have more difficulties.

SS: I don’t only mean the economy. Hezbollah openly supporting the Assad regime. It causes Sunni extremists’ anger, which could turn into a civil war in Lebanon, no?

MA: Sunni Muslims are gaining ground in Syria. All Gulf countries are helping the opposition to counter Syrians and they are making Syrians flee from the country and come to Lebanon.

SS:Do you agree that Lebanon is an arena for settling accounts between other countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran?

MA: It will not happen. The problem is in another place.

SS: After the bombings Lebanon suffered recently, many thought the country has become exposed from the security point of view. You don’t agree?

MA: Well, maybe it was for a moment. It will not begin again.

SS:But Lebanon has always been a very secular state – as secular as it can get in the Middle East. There is a growing Islamist movement around the region. Can that affect Lebanon? Are you not worried? It’s all over the region. Can Lebanon stay away from that phenomenon?

MA: With the defeat of extremists in Syria, it will never happen: I mean Lebanon will never change its regime – it will stay secular.

SS: You seem determined that the extremist opposition is going to lose in Syria, right?

MA: Yes.

SS:How much does religion in general drive political decisions in Lebanon?

MA: Not too much. There are parties, not religions.

SS: You have Hezbollah, which is clearly very religious, faith-based and they have millions of supporters. So it must have a say in their political decisions.

MA: We are secular. And we have our supporters. And we decide politics not because we are Muslims or Christians. We are a political party. Lebanon is politically divided, but on the base of religion. So what we do for the country is political. And when we have to pray, we go to a church or to a mosque.

SS: Lebanon holds deposits of oil and gas. Why aren’t you tapping into those deposits now? Are you waiting for the Syrian conflict to finish?

MA: No, we are trying to do it. Some parties are refusing that. They and the government.

SS: Why are they refusing?

MA: They don’t say why. That’s a mysterious thing, you know. The prime minister doesn’t call a meeting necessary to confirm the law that will give oil companies the final proposal to tap oil deposits.

SS:But it would seem like it would benefit the whole of Lebanon, if these reserves are used for the country, no?

MA: That’s the capricious system that we have.

SS:General Michel Aoun, thank you very much for this interview.

MA: You’re welcome.