'Western intervention would help Assad by making him victim' - Ex-Lebanese PM
Lebanon has already received over 1.3 million Syrian refugees. Together with international aid organizations it struggles to keep them sheltered and fed. The Lebanese economy has been damaged by billions of dollars already and there is no end in sight to the Syrian crisis. Will Lebanon close its border? Or will it take sides in the fight? We ask Fouad Siniora, former Lebanese Prime Minister, now one of the leaders in parliament opposition.
Sophie Shavardnadze:Fouad Siniora, thank you very much for being with RT today.
Fouad Siniora: Thank you for coming.
SS:So we are actually witnessing the resurgence of sectarian violence here, in Beirut – do you think there’s a chance that Lebanon will remain neutral in its position toward the Syrian civil war?
FS: I really count a great deal on the resistance of the Lebanese, the resistance of not accepting that their country will be dragged into any type of confrontation among the various components. On the contrary, I think there’s a great deal of firm positions among the Lebanese that they want to live together, they really want to carry on the dialogue together. There are lots of issues that need to be sorted out, but this does not mean that they will resort to violence in trying to deal with this matter. On the other hand, I mean – for sure, to have that number – it would constitute problems on the security level.
SS: But you are saying, “The international community hasn’t really fulfilled its promises in helping us with the refugees.” I know that the UN has offered Lebanon to set up refugee camps that Lebanon has rejected, all these refugees are in a free-flow right now – it can’t be too good, can it? Why do you think they rejected that offer?
FS: This is really a mistake that was committed by the present government, and we have already advised…I mean, we are part of the opposition now, for the time being, and we have expressed our opinion so many times, and we proposed to the Lebanese government that they should help in setting up a number of camps for the refugees, Syrian refugees, near the Syrian-Lebanese border. It helps Lebanon in presenting its problem to the world by showing actually what it is undergoing in terms of a burden, that such a huge number [of refugees have come to the country].
SS:So why did they refuse it in the first place?
FS: Actually, there are two reasons. One is that the Lebanese government at that time during the past three years was very much influenced by the Syrian government, by the Syrian regime. And in this respect, the Syrian regime has been adopting a policy of denying what was happening, they were denying that there was a problem going on in Syria, just until recently they started to recognize this. One the other hand, there is certain fear among certain components of the Lebanon society that this may constitute later on something similar to the Palestinian refugees for whom there were camps set up. So, in fact, I don’t think this is true but this at least was their opinion, which resulted in not allowing the Lebanese government to set up these camps for the Syrian refugees.
SS:What are the economic implications? It already cost Lebanon $2 billion.
FS: Tremendous. There was a report, published recently by the World Bank, about the economic consequences of such a massive number of Syrian refugees, direct and indirect, which is in excess of $7.5 billion. So this is something Lebanon cannot really take.
SS:The Syrian civil war for many is really a part of a larger conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, with Saudi Arabia and Iran behind the scenes, pulling the strings – what do you think?
FS: I think this is a misnomer and a misrepresentation of the facts. Let’s go back at what really happened in March 2011 – over two and a half years ago. It was the way of people of Darah at that time, who took the streets in order to [air] their disagreement and their feeling of lack of freedom and dignity. Actually, the regime has resorted to its classical tools in trying to separate various components of society. Throughout the past decades you [could] never distinguish and differentiate between the various components of Syrian society, and you [wouldn’t] know who was Christian, who was Muslim, who was Alawite, who was Sunni, and so on. That was the situation in Syria. The regime has resorted to these tools in order to create sedition within the country.
SS:No one doubts that the conflict started as a local thing. That’s a fact, but I am talking about now – you have Hezbollah and the Iranians who are supplying arms to the Assad regime, and you have Qatar and Saudi who are arming the rebels. That’s a fact. I’m saying, right now – the way things are looking at this point, it seems like it’s just a part of a larger conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
FS: For sure, there is a certain conflict going on between a number of regional powers. But, you see, now we have to know how it really developed, what was a mistake, and particularly there was a mistake as I believe, and I have communicated this several times to the Russian leadership, because they are the ones who had a role to play. And we always remember that for the Russians – they always supported the people, throughout the past decades in their dealing with the Arab world. And, at the same time, they are the ones who had [the] possibility to go in-between opposition and the uprising on the one hand, and the regime on the other. Instead of taking the initiative and trying to find a solution for the problem that is growing – they were quite aware of what the regime can really do in terms of the tools that it resorted too, particularly in trying to assemble and to free some of the terrorists and the extremists that were imprisoned in Syria, and elsewhere, and were used by the Syrian regime at one time to assemble them and send them to Iraq and they’ve sent them to us in Lebanon – the Russians have already seen what the regime can do, they kept on silent and they supported the regime, and it went along in the way to carry on this process of creating the sedition. Now, where do we go from here, something has to be done in order to really bring together…I fully agree, something has to be done in terms of arranging for the Geneva-2 conference, to get together into that conference, but on the proper work plan, so that ultimately this would lead towards to Assad not being there in such a formula. It is not possible for somebody who is a president of a country that has suffered throughout two and a half years of over 120,000 casualties and the destruction of Syria and the creation of the sedition to come back as a continued president in such a country.
SS:You really think Russia supports Assad and wants Assad to stay in power? They are not supporting the regime, from what I know they just don’t want the rebels to come in power because they would be repercussions for Russia’s North Caucasus region.
FS: Let me tell you, this is at a certain point very important – we understand what you call the concerns of Russia, in terms of extremists. But we have exactly the same concerns. What we really expect from Russia is [the] support of moderates in Syria, in what Syria is really the day after, what it is going to be.
SS: But where do you make a difference between moderates and the rebels, because it’s so mixed up right now. Largely, the rebels are made up of jihadists right now, no?
FS: That’s not true at all. What really the regime is trying to say is that 80% of Syrians are terrorists and are extremists, that’s not true.
SS:They’re saying the outsiders are rebels fighting in Syria.
FS: They are a small minority – there are hundreds, not more than hundreds, the rest are Syrian, they are ordinary Syrians, they are pious people, they are not really extremists, they are not terrorists.
SS:Everybody saw on YouTube how one of the terrorists was just ripping out the heart of a Syrian person and eating it….
FS: Actually I told this to his Excellency, Sergey Lavrov, the other day, when I met with him two months ago, and I said “I understand that President Putin has mentioned this thing about the man who took the heart of somebody and ate it. I don’t know who is he, he might be planted, he might be correct in that he has certain revenge, or he is a criminal. But he did not see the man who cut the throat of a very famous singer in Syria, and he did not see as well that there are more than 120,000 people killed, so the one that took his heart - it’s something very criminal – [but] the 120,000 dead is not something criminal?” It is high time to put an end to this tragedy that’s going on. This is genocide, what’s happening in Syria, it has to be stopped, and stopped now. And, there is a role and a duty on behalf of the Russians.
SS:What do you think of Russian-Kerry accord?
FS: I believe that they put an end to a problem in Syria, which was really done by the Syrian regime. They resorted to create some sort of a strategic balance and a strategic equivalence with Israel, because Israel has nuclear bombs. So this agreement that was made is fine, but is that all? Is it over now, I mean the whole thing is that we finally got to get, let’s say, free of chemical weapons? What about the continued genocide that is taking place in Syria?
SS: You never told me what you thought of a possible American local strike on Syria that could still be an option if this agreement doesn’t work out.
FS: I myself, personally, I don’t believe in the use of weapons, and in the use of violence. The problem is that whenever you really ask, let’s say, to allow the West to use weapons – it’s not going to really finish the job. It’s going to end up in having half of the job done. And this by itself is going to make a victim out of Assad, and he’s going to capitalize on it, and this will elongate the problem, while effectively creating the necessary conditions by making some sort of equivalence between the opposition and the regime. It will lead toward going to Geneva and agreement with the Russians that enough is enough, leading to some sort of a way to a roadmap, leading toward putting an end to the regime, and in that a democracy can really be built over there. What is really being said for on and on? Is that we are afraid to have the fundamentalists to take over in Syria. I’ll tell you – if we are going to leave things as they are, the chances of further radicalization are going to increase, while on the other hand, supporting the forces of moderation, supporting within the region efforts in order to help Syria to reconstruct itself and to rebuild itself, and while at the same time creating reconciliation along the model I have just mentioned to you would be the best solution for Syria. Otherwise, it is a recipe for a continued conflict and continued bloodshed, and continued, let’s say, radiation of forces of violence from Syria into the region. What has happened in Syria is something that does not threaten the situation in Syria to continue as such, it may really spread in so many countries and creating a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in the region and a defeatist feeling in the region that is going to really aggravate the situation further.
SS: If I may, I just have a couple more questions about the situation within Lebanon. Do you see the Fatah-Al-Islam group as your natural allies, or you see it as threat to Lebanon?
FS: Let me clarify this matter. Fatah-Al-Islam is a group of Palestinians, who were sent by the Syrian regime in the 2007, and they took over a Palestinian camp in north Lebanon, and they fought the Lebanese army. At that time I was Prime Minister - in which I was really firm, that is in really putting an end to this attack that was made, that led ultimately to the destruction of the camp. But it was much better than leaving this terrorist attack to spread all over in the Lebanon. We are Lebanese – and effectively we are the Muslims in Lebanon, and the Sunnis – they want firmly to live together with their counterparts in the country, with all the rest of the Lebanese. We are against the use of religion in order to try to defend certain principles and certain ideas, and we are against use of violence in this respect. This is in fact…in the name of Islam, or in the name or religion – these people commit crimes, and this is against the teachings of Islam.
SS:Now, the Free Syrian Army activities on the Lebanese soil implicate abductions and rocket attacks, even though they were directed to Hezbollah, but it was Lebanese soil. Do you think there should be a crackdown on a Free Syrian Army in Lebanon or they should be tolerated?
FS: Well, I don’t think Free Syrian Army is here. Any attack, that is directed from Syria whoever does it – whether it is Free Syrian Army, or the regime, or anybody, we are against and we have expressed this opinion quite clearly in all the communiqué that was made by the Al-Mustaqbal group of parliamentarians. We denounce every attack that originates from Syrian territories on to Lebanon, or any attack that was made in Lebanon by any group that is directed towards the Lebanese group.
SS: The Syrian regime has issued an arrest warrant for some of your party top officials, including Saad Hariri, saying that you guys are financing the opposition. Do you deny these charges?
FS: Our position vis-à-vis the opposition in Syria, because this thing has nothing with the Syrian uprising. It was issued much longer before that. So, this warrants that were made against 30 people.
FS: No, it was made before, and that was renewed at that time. But what I really want to say is that the Syrian regime has been resorting to such types of efforts in order to destabilize Lebanon, and that’s…our position vis-à-vis Syrian uprising is that we have mentioned clearly that politically we sympathize with the Syrian uprising…
SS: Are you financing it?
FS: From the humanitarian point of view, we are helping in the receiving of the refugees, but we don’t finance, we don’t smuggle weapons or send armed personnel. We do not do any of these things. This is something we disagree with and we do not really approve of anything of this sort and we cannot afford it.
SS: It’s pretty obvious that any of your party officials are out of reach for Syrian law enforcement right now – but aren’t you afraid that they may become targets for Hezbollah?
FS: Well, we have been already for quite some time. Our group has been targeted by certain terrorists and this is something I don’t want to accuse anybody of, because this is the subject matter of the international tribunal to really deal with it. For sure, this is a risk that is there, but in this respect you only live once, and you have to live in dignity, and this is something that we are freedom-seekers and we believe that what is happening in Syria is unacceptable from all respects. What is happening in Lebanon by the continued attack against the state are such, and the holding of weapons by a group of Lebanese, that was initially used to drive the Israelis out of Lebanon – and thanks for the work that they have done in this regard, I mean, Hezbollah who was influential in doing so…the problem is that Hezbollah have redirected its weapons against the chests of the innocent Lebanese, and using this as a way to implement certain regional plans – this is something unacceptable, and will continue to stand against such plans, definitely through the democratic process, that has been granted to us by our constitution.
SS:That’s it for today, hearing from Lebanon former prime minster, whom I met in Beirut, thank you for watching us.