Lebanon’s intel chief meets top US officials, CIA head for talks on hostages in Syria
Abbas Ibrahim also said the shadow war between Israel and Iran was taking place at a distance from Lebanon and that he doesn't think it will spill over to areas outside of the current arena.
Lebanon’s powerful intel chief said Tuesday that he was working to mediate between the US and Syria on the release of at least six American hostages, including Austin Tice.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security, also warned that the situation in his country could further deteriorate following the outcome of the recent parliamentary elections.
US hostages in Syria
Speaking to Al Arabiya during a trip to Washington this week, Ibrahim said talks on a deal to free the hostages were almost completed under the Trump administration. “But circumstances [put the deal on hold]. I believe we need to restart from where we ended the talks last time,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim was invited to Washington by the Biden administration, where he met with several senior American officials.
On Sunday, the Lebanese official met with White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and others from the National Security Council. He also met with CIA chief Bill Burns during his trip.
Ibrahim has made similar trips on a routine basis since his role in mediating the release of Western hostages has proven successful in recent years.
“The purpose of the trip was to discuss the situation in Lebanon and the region, in addition to the missing Americans in Syria,” Ibrahim said, revealing that there were six US hostages believed to be in Syria.
In 2020, Ibrahim helped secure the release of US citizen Sam Goodwin and Canadian citizen Kristian Lee Baxter from the Syrian regime’s custody in separate operations. He has also been working with the US to find out the fate of missing journalist Austin Tice, who was kidnapped by the Syrian regime in 2012. Ibrahim also shuttled back and forth in 2019 between Beirut and Tehran to help facilitate the release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who was also a permanent US resident at the time. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) kidnapped Zakka in 2015 in Tehran after receiving an official invite from the state for a conference.
Asked if there was a renewed push for him to help mediation efforts, Ibrahim said: “If there is no movement on this front, we need to create it. This is a solely humanitarian subject and needs to be discussed away from any political differences.”
The US and Syria currently have no diplomatic relations. The Czech Republic serves as the protecting power for US interests in Syria, according to the State Department’s website.
One of the most high-profile cases of missing Americans has been journalist, Austin Tice.
At an event in Washington on Tuesday, Tice’s mother struck a positive tone. “I am always hopeful that today is the day my son will call and say I am on the way home,” Debra Tice told Al Arabiya English.
She also praised Ibrahim as being respected and “successful in bringing people home.”
Ibrahim did not elaborate on Tice’s case or any of the other five hostages, but he also met with Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department.
Sources have told Al Arabiya English that Carstens was in Lebanon at the end of March to discuss the file of US hostages.
Ibrahim sounded upbeat about the potential for a breakthrough on the hostages. “Both sides [Syria and the US] don’t oppose mediation efforts to solve this,” he said.
Worrying situation in Lebanon
Last week, Lebanese voters went to the polls to vote for new members of parliament. The results saw the election of more than a dozen candidates from the civil society and several other new faces in the 128-member chamber.
While Hezbollah and its Shia allies, the Amal Movement, maintained their grip on the Shia lawmakers, their parliamentary bloc was stripped of its majority.
Political tensions escalated, as is the case generally around the globe during elections, but there is an unprecedented financial and economic collapse in Lebanon.
And despite the elections being held without major security incidents, the Lebanese intelligence head sounded the alarm. Ibrahim said there was a wait-and-see approach as to how new political blocs will be formed. “But what we saw, and speeches from politicians, even post-elections, does not signal a positive outlook, unfortunately,” he said, before adding that there is “always light after dark.”
The World Bank has said Lebanon’s financial crisis is one of the worst the world has seen in over 150 years.
Lebanon has struggled to cope with this crisis since nationwide anti-government protests in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic. The Beirut blast exacerbated the country’s problems.
Ibrahim said the only way to climb out of the situation was for the Lebanese government to implement reforms requested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
These reforms include increasing taxes, among other measures, that would impact ordinary civilians more than the political elite.
“There is bad, and there is worse. If we don’t carry out the reforms, we will reach worse, so we need to accept bad to not reach worse in the future,” Ibrahim said when asked if the Lebanese population could afford such austerity measures.
Iran-Israel tensions won’t spill over
Ibrahim was in the US this week when senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was shot and killed inside Iran.
Tehran has promised a response and has accused Israel of being behind the assassination.
Hezbollah, one of Iran’s most powerful proxies abroad, is looked at by some as potentially working to carry out or help with the response.
But Ibrahim said this was farfetched and that he didn’t believe there would be security repercussions inside Lebanon. “The conflict space is outside of Lebanon. Iran and Israel are carrying out operations against each other outside of Lebanon, and I don’t think they will spread to areas outside of where they are currently taking place.”
When asked if Tehran or Beirut decided not to involve Lebanon, he said it was “solely a Lebanese decision.”
The shocking explosion that took place at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, is still under investigation by the Lebanese courts.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has not released a full version of its findings and Ibrahim referred questions on why to Washington.
But he later said the Lebanese authorities had the report and that it was up to them to release it. “I am positive it will be released at the right time,” he said.
Political bickering and interference have stymied multiple judges from completing their investigations, including the refusal of several lawmakers and prime ministers to testify.
“Everything gets politicized in Lebanon. So don’t be surprised that [the investigations] have taken a political turn,” he said.
Lebanese-Israeli maritime border
Besides his work as a mediator and intel chief, Ibrahim has been dispatched as an envoy to represent Lebanese officials in different capitals.
Among the political missions he’s also worked on is the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border dispute, which multiple US administrations have tried to help with.
The State Department’s Senior Advisor for Energy Security, Amos Hochstein, took the lead in mediating efforts under the Biden administration.
During his last trip to Beirut, he reportedly submitted written questions to the Lebanese government.
Hochstein’s last trip with stops in Lebanon and Israel came in February. Lebanon has yet to respond, and the US diplomat warned that he wanted to help but would not have an open-ended timeline to try to help resolve the yearslong dispute.
According to Ibrahim, the Lebanese elections and their preparations delayed the response to Hochstein.
Nevertheless, Beirut is set to submit a formal letter to Washington soon. “I confirm that Lebanon will respond soon, via a written response, in the same manner in which it received the questions from the US. We are working on this file, and the response is almost complete,” Ibrahim told Al Arabiya.
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