Bassil: Hezbollah does not coordinate with FPM on Lebanon’s border operations

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Hezbollah does not coordinate with their allies in the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Al Arabiya in a wide-ranging interview.

Bassil, who is the head of the FPM group, was asked by Al Arabiya’s Rima Maktabi on whether Hezbollah asks his group before carrying out any military operations near Lebanon’s borders.

“Hezbollah said more than once that it has not coordinated with any Lebanese party before an operation. But this is not the issue here. The border issue is the responsibility of the Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is a part of,” Bassil said when questioned whether Hezbollah has ever asked the Free Patriotic Movement before carrying out a military operation.

Hezbollah has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, Saudi Arabia, several Middle Eastern, and other European countries.

Britain became the latest country in February to confirm plans on designating all wings of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity due to its destabilizing influence in the Middle East.

Speaking on Lebanon’s borders with Israel, Bassil said that the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanon were in agreement “since 2006 to protect Lebanon and defend its lands based on a defense strategy. Our pillar relies on the concept of the Lebanese state.”

Earlier last week, former justice minister Ashraf Rifi accused Bassil of engaging in widespread acts of corruption, including receiving Iranian funds as payment for providing a “Christian cover” for Hezbollah.

“Since the Free Patriotic Movement provided a Christian cover to Hezbollah’s weapons, Iran paid the FPM large sums of money periodically,” Rifi said last week.

“This money was transferred to Lebanon in boxes that had ‘the Iranian Red Crescent’ written on them. Bassil personally received and transferred these cartons,” Rifi added.

Below is the full transcript of Al Arabiya’s interview with Gebran Bassil:

Welcome to this exclusive interview with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Thank you for having us at your residence in Laqlouq.

Welcome, you are welcome.

The American president gave the Syrian occupied Golan to Israel with a simple signature. First of all, there are occupied Lebanese territories which are Shebaa and Al-Ghajar. They are supposedly Lebanese but the borders haven’t been demarcated. What’s their legal status?

I believe the American decision strengthens the notion that Golan is Syrian because no country will accept this dangerous precedent of someone granting something that he does not own to someone who does not own it to begin with. This is an international precedent that affects any two neighboring countries as they fear that the president of a great power will one day take a unilateral decision that would impact them. Hence, some countries did not comply with the decision and they rejected it. As for Lebanon, the Shebaa Farms are of course Lebanese territories and are rightly Lebanese. We will do what it takes to restore them, mainly stand against Israel because it is the one that occupies them. Secondly, regarding statements that this land is Syrian, we think that given the special relations between Lebanon and Syria, Lebanon must restore this land because this is Lebanon’s right, and we will demand it.

But these special relations between Lebanon and Syria have so far did not lead to demarcating borders. Lebanon today is perhaps about to lose lands. Have you followed up on the matter with the Syrian foreign minister?

I think it was one of the few times, as to not say the only one, that during Al-Jroud Battle, the Lebanese army raised the Lebanese flag when it liberated its lands in the Eastern Mountain Range.

You’re referring to the battle along the Syrian borders against ISIS?

Yes. Lebanon, through its relations with Syria, has further confirmed its independence and sovereignty over its land. Lebanon has emphasized its friendly relations with Syria. It’s a special relation because it’s friendly. This relation wouldn’t be special if it’s not friendly. You know how many problems there have been between Lebanon and Syria until we reached this mutual acceptance via embassies and friendly ties. Hence, it’s our duty to demarcate borders between Lebanon and Syria especially regarding the Shebaa Farms and to emphasize that this land is Lebanese. It’s also our duty to continue to demand restoring this land. Let’s not forget that the faction which demands restoring it and makes efforts in this regard is actually Hezbollah which also has distinguished relations with Syria.

So America makes a decision and America then gets what it wants. You said that the international community rejected the US decision. However, there is actual fear that Golan becomes Israeli. There’s talk about the “deal of the century.” Have you been officially notified of peace consultations between the Arabs and the Israelis or between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

I guess we all heard about that. There’s nothing official in this regard but what is hinted to us is not reassuring. The first concerned party regarding this is the Palestinian party which we’ve heard direct statements from, statements that convey plenty of worry. What is being leaked about this deal does not hint that the agreement is capable of achieving peace or that it’s viable. We hope the deal is based on the principles of justice so it can achieve real peace and balance.

Some say that given the shared oil fields between Lebanon and Israel, then Lebanon will one day have to reach a peace deal with Israel. Is Lebanon ready, and does it need such a thing?

No, a peace deal with Israel is much more than just the issue of oil fields. In the end, these fields are ours if they’re in our zone, and if they’re outside our zone, then they’re not ours.

But there are joint fields.

There are many joint fields in the world that either cause war or achieve more peace and stability. At first, it’s stability. People believe that when any resource is shared upon a friendly basis and according to mutual rights then peace reigns. However, peace will not reign with force and power and when someone forcefully takes something.

So Israel is an enemy until further notice. Are Lebanon’s borders with Israel protected? Does Hezbollah, the ally of the Free Patriotic Movement, fully coordinates with you? And you, as a foreign minister, are you in control of the situation on the borders? Do you promise a safe summer?

There’s been an agreement between the FPM and Hezbollah in 2006 to protect Lebanon and defend Lebanon’ lands based on a defense strategy. Our pillar relies on the concept of the Lebanese state.

So does Hezbollah ask the FPM before carrying out any military operation on the borders?

No. Hezbollah said more than once that it has not coordinated with any Lebanese party before an operation. But this is not the issue here. The border issue is the responsibility of the Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is a part of.

Yes, Hezbollah is part of the government.

This is not a decision made by Hezbollah. It’s a decision made by the Lebanese state. Therefore, regarding the demarcation of borders, our stance is that an agreement must be reached. Through an agreement via the UN or via American mediation, we can restore Lebanese lands. When we achieve something via diplomacy or via an agreement, the result is the same, and this is a gain for Lebanon.

But I am talking about war and peace decisions. Hezbollah is today strongly present in the Lebanese government. Who has the war and peace decision today? The government or Hezbollah?

I think Lebanon has never launched war against Israel, so Lebanon does not have a war decision to begin with.

But two soldiers were captured in 2006.

This issue was about exchanging prisoners, and it ended with a prisoner swap.

It ended with war

Certainly though Lebanon, its government, state and people do not want war on Israel. They want to protect their lands, borders and resources from Israeli aggression. If a war is imposed on Lebanon, the latter will respond and protect itself but Lebanon has never launched war against Israel and does not have the intention to do so. This is not what we hope for. All we want is to live freely and with dignity and sovereignty over the land.

There is a feeling that it’s Hezbollah’s state and a feeling that Lebanon has gone to Iran’s bosom and lost its ties with Gulf countries and Arab countries. What do you, Lebanon’s foreign minister, have to say about this?

I don’t think it’s in Lebanon’s interest to be in an axis or with a state against a state. Lebanon goes after its interest with each stance it takes. Putting Lebanon in a certain category, whether it is advantageous or disadvantageous, does not serve Lebanon’s interest. This is neither the Lebanese decision nor what’s in the ministerial statement.

How are relations with Gulf countries, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE?

We want them to be very good for many reasons that are related to Lebanon’s interest and the interest of Gulf countries. There is a large Lebanese community there that contributed well to building the Gulf. We’ve never done anything but good deeds for the Gulf, and we want the Gulf to feel the same towards Lebanon. This is why this relation has begun to improve and return to how it was, as seen, for example, in lifting the warning. However, we aspire more, much more, than this.

You mean the Saudi decision lifting the travel warning?

We aspire to have developed relations that are better than they are today. This is why we are working to sign an agreement so the Saudi kingdom and all Gulf countries are involved in helping Lebanon and in protecting it and benefitting from Lebanese capabilities and so they do not have an opposing stance or a hostile one or a position that’s distant from Lebanon. Being distant from Lebanon creates vacuum that’s not in the interest of the latter and it’s also not in the interest of Gulf countries. It should be on the contrary, getting close to Lebanon without interfering in internal affairs just like they do not allow anyone to interfere in their internal affairs.

The Saudi Kingdom lifted the travel warning for its citizens to visit Lebanon. And as you await other Gulf countries to follow suit, what do you tell Arab tourists now that summer is close? Do you promise a safe summer?

They know and they feel that Lebanon is their second country. They know how the Lebanese receive them and how much they love the Lebanese people. This relation between the Lebanese and Arab countries and the Gulf in particular has always been nothing but extremely friendly and it must go back to how it used to be. We missed them and we tell them you’re welcome in Lebanon.

Will it be a safe summer?

Despite all the fire surrounding it, Lebanon has managed to maintain its stability and security. We’re witnessing a phase where security is very good. If someone is hurt, it means we are the ones who got hurt. Lebanon is sometimes hurt but no one from the Gulf was injured in Lebanon and no citizen from any other country was injured in Lebanon. We are a hospitable country and we receive others even when we are harmed by 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 0.5 million Palestinians, as we have shown them nothing but humanity, kindness and love because that’s our true feeling.

Lebanon though is accused of being racist towards the Syrians.

Name one country in the history of humanity that tolerated 200 refugees in 1 km2 and that tolerated refugees whose number is half its population. Name one Arab or western country that managed to tolerate this like Lebanon. Until today, our people did not manifest any hostile reaction, and I call on them to maintain this love, humanity and brotherhood towards our guests. Our state has until this day never expelled a single person. I do not think that Europe, which is bigger than Lebanon and whose economy is thousand times better than our economy could tolerate the number of refugees which we tolerated.

You’re saying that Syrian refugees have become a burden on Lebanon. You went to Russia and President Michel Aoun went to Russia too. Have you asked the Russians to help resolve the refugees’ problem or to help with their return?

Frankly, Syria is closer than Russia.

But most of the refugees here oppose the Syrian regime.

I am saying that I never link the refugees’ issue with just the relation with Syria. I always say that a part is related to ties with Syria and another is related to the relation with the international community. A large part is related to the Lebanese people’s relations among one another and their agreement to implement the Lebanese law. We do not necessarily have to go to Russia to handle this refugees’ issue. The Russians have launched their initiative and they did not ask anyone. We supported this initiative because it suits us, and the Lebanese people supported it. The Russian initiative firstly suits us because Russia is a great power that’s granting a political cover for the return of refugees, and secondly because the Lebanese people agree on it. However, the Russians say that this initiative cannot be fulfilled in isolation from the Syrian side. Despite this, I think what’s essential for the Syrians’ return home gradually – and not all at once or even tomorrow but gradually – and in safe and secure way is that they are given aid to go home and not aid to stay in Lebanon.

Cash money?

No, but the same aid they’re given here should be given to them there. They must not be told that if they return, they will lose all this aid which they are receiving in Lebanon. On the contrary, they should be provided with the same aid, which will be cheaper there because the living cost in Syria is less.

Your Excellency, I’ve visited several towns in Idlib, Aleppo and Daraa that are completely destroyed so where will they live?

In 2006, South Lebanon was destroyed, and the Lebanese set tents next to their destroyed houses.

But they did so after the ceasefire.

We’re not saying they should return to areas that are not safe and secure. There are many places where the government is achieving reconciliation towards people and where people, like tribes, sects and residential groups, are reconciling among each other where it’s possible and where houses are not destroyed. The Syrians are saying they will host them in their public schools where they can set their foot and build their houses, where there’s safety and security and where there is no political or security problem with the regime. We’re saying these people must return, and they’re the sweeping majority. You know how many Syrian refugees have a refugee card and they go to Syria then return to Lebanon and work in Lebanon and make money and take residential and healthcare aid and receive social and educational aid.

Why is Lebanon, whose president now is Michel Aoun who was one of the fiercest enemies of the Syrian regime in the past, is now the one which is asking for Syria’s return to the Arab league the most? The position of Lebanon under the presidency of Michel Aoun and the FPM and the hostility towards Syria in the past is not understandable.

When Syria was in Lebanon in the past, we were the only ones who confronted it, and we said that when Syria withdraws, we will establish the best relations.

And now, why do you want to bring it back to the Arab embrace?

Because it’s in the interest of Lebanon and in the interest of Syria and the Arab League. I confirm to you that there’s been no contact, at least between me and the Syrians, regarding their return to the League. I think it’s in our interest that Syria returns. Remember my words and document them in this interview. There will come a day soon when all Arab countries call for Syria’s return because it’s in our interest that Syria remains in the Arabs’ embrace and that we do not throw it in another.

Syria will of course return but will it be Syria under Bashar al-Assad or under who?

Do you know how many Gulf officials I’ve heard voice their discontent that at the Astana talks, many Syrian problems are being resolved, such as calming down the situation, and not a single Arab country was participating? We began to say that yes, we’d go as observers.

Your Excellency, half a million have been killed and an entire population has been displaced either inside Syria or to outside Syria. Will the Arab League accept Bashar al-Assad among its ranks?

It’s because half a million have been killed and there are displaced people that the latter must return to the Arab fold so we, the Arabs, do not lose an Arab people and leave them displaced across the world. Is this how we’d win them? By displacing them? We, and primarily Lebanon, all say that we do not want to interfere, and the Syrians are the ones who decide what they want. We are with them with whatever they choose whether they choose Bashar al-Assad or not. This does not concern us and it does not concern other countries. This matter concerns the Syrian people. Are they fighting so they achieve democracy? Let them decide on this matter with their democracy and free elections.

It’s obvious to whoever visits Lebanon, whether he has a family or he’s an Arab tourist or a foreigner, that the economic situation is difficult. Are we before a social revolution that surpasses parties? To what extent can you control the situation when a citizen, whether he’s affiliated with the FPM, or the Future Movement or Hezbollah, is hungry?

I never think of myself as part of an authority or a composition or a system. We are the ones who called on people to revolt and reject corruption and turn against a political category that drove the country to where it is today. We think this is good as long as the country is not submissive to chaos or to foreign agendas. However, we are with any rightful anger that’s justified and aware. We always ask the civil society to act. Who is the civil society other than the people themselves? There’s no society in the world that’s entirely partisan. Unfortunately, political parties and movements in Lebanon have a bigger share because they’re affiliated with the sect.

But hunger does not know a sect.

100 percent. Hence, it’s necessary that we either fix the situation for people and fix the things we’re demanding and which sometimes people do not approve of or it’s people’s right to turn against us.

Is it true that the Lebanese economy is on the brink of collapse?

I am telling you the Lebanese economy is not on the brink of collapse. We carried out the required and well-known measures, a well-known medical prescription that does not go wrong and that if we adopt, we do not only save the economy but the latter can also quickly restore its vitality and activity. If we do not adopt it, we’d be before the threat of extended decline.

One of the prescriptions you’re talking about are the commitments Lebanon made to the Cedar Conference such as reforms and fighting corruption. What happened in this regard?

They are not obligations as much as they are reforms which we must carry out. We opted for them and imposed them hence I do not accept that others speak via a logic that stipulates that the Cedar Conference decisions are an international obligation. We must carry out these reforms as there are some countries that link their help to us with achieving these reforms. This is great. This can be an additional incentive for some to carry out these reforms. How much time have we spent asking for these reforms in the budget, the economy, tax evasion, squandering, corruption and others serious issues? For example, when it comes to the financial policy, we’re living in a whirlpool. If we let the lira collapse, this would be a disaster. Our support for the lira comes at a high cost at a time when we can adopt a financial policy that maintains the stability of the lira, decreases interest and the profit of the banks, the Central Bank and the banking system which are a major pillar in our economy and which we must of course maintain but their profit must be reasonable while reviving the economy and pushing it to be more productive. There are many issues which may not interest Arab viewers because they’re domestic but we’re saying that Lebanon is a strong country, its economy is strong and its people are strong and resilient in every sense of the word and capable of rising quickly. All that’s required is that the government, via the budget and the consecutive reforms, provides the required push to individual initiatives in Lebanon and to the private sector and to the strong Lebanese individuals.

In brief, if I ask you what is Lebanon’s only problem, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

The several foreign arguments which we intersect with. It is all this push and pull from the outside in addition to arguments inside Lebanon. We are a very diverse country which to an extent paid the price for this diversity. At some point we lived this diversity but foreign hands that are stronger than us have always divided us based on sects and international and regional orientations. The recipe lies in Lebanon’s complete independence on the political and economic levels. We can be independent while taking into consideration our interest as well as others’ interest without being anyone’s followers, which is our main problem.

One last and personal question. Gebran Bassil, you’re a Maronite. The presidential post is the Maronites’ share. Will you one day be a president of the Lebanese republic? Do you aspire this, not necessarily in the near future?

He who desires something does not have it, especially during this phase. I do not like to discuss this issue as long as General Aoun, with everything he represents to me and to us, is the president.

I am not saying now.

I know. But it’s not appropriate to talk about anything when it’s too early for it.

Are you worried about the Christians in Lebanon?

Of course, I am worried about the Christians, and I am worried about them in the East. Look at what’s happening in Palestine, Iraq, Jordan and Syria recently.

But they do not have Christian-Christian disputes like the Lebanese do.

Look at what Lebanon what was subjected to. I am worried about the Lebanese diversity and all diversity in the Levant. I am also equally worried about Muslims. When the New Zealand incident happened, it deeply grieved me and I felt the same when the Sri Lanka incident happened yesterday. This extremism only yields another form of extremism. I believe we are a bridge between sects, between the East and the West. We are a bridge of communication to accept others. This is Lebanon’s strength and capability. When a component is lost, Lebanon loses its message and uniqueness, hence it’s in the interest of Arabs to preserve this. This is why we do not want Lebanon to be in an axis as it’s capable of being on all axes without being contradictory and without exploding. This way it secures its interest. When there’s something on a certain axis that suits it, it can go with it to the end, and it can reject anything that does not suit it. This is how I see Lebanon. When Lebanon is a one colored-country, then this is no longer Lebanon.

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