BEIRUT — Hezbollah is ready to confront jihadist groups in defending Lebanon, according to Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Fayyad. In an exclusive interview, Fayyad told Al-Monitor, “Hezbollah is determined to fight takfiri groups.” He said, “If the situation were to worsen, Hezbollah is ready to defend Lebanon.” Fayyad described Lebanon as being “under direct threat” from the Islamic State (IS).
The northeastern Lebanese village of Arsal, adjacent to the Syrian border, has been the scene of violent clashes between the Lebanese army and jihadist militants from IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. A number of Lebanese army soldiers and security personnel were taken captive by the jihadists during these clashes, and two of them were executed by IS.
Fayyad said Hezbollah was working with border villages to improve their security, but that it was ultimately the role of the Lebanese state to develop a security strategy for the border areas threatened by terrorist groups. “Hezbollah is not training groups. Many Christian border villages asked for our help to protect these towns and for military cooperation,” he said. “We have a principle: This task is that of the Lebanese state and the Lebanese army. Hezbollah is ready to cooperate as part of the Lebanese social fabric.”
While acknowledging that the presence of Syrian refugees is having “negative effects” on the country, Fayyad holds that civilian Syrian refugees should not be blamed for terrorist activity. “We cannot hold civilians responsible for what terrorist groups, which have taken refuge in camps, are doing,” he said.
Fayyad welcomed any military aid provided to the Lebanese army, but said the aid provided by Western countries, like the United States, was insufficient to defeat the militant groups. “The [current] aid doesn’t allow the Lebanese army to be in a position where it can decide this battle in its favor,” Fayyad said. “Lebanon is in need of helicopters and missiles, which would help in changing the course of the battle, in addition to drones to track terrorist groups that are on the move in the mountains.”
The Hezbollah parliament member also welcomed any military action against IS inside Syria on the condition that it would be in coordination with the Syrian government. In response to a question regarding possible US military action against IS in Syria, Fayyad said, “There now exists broad common ground in the Middle East in the name of confronting takfiri terrorism. And all efforts to confront this phenomenon are welcome but must take into consideration the sovereignty of states and not be an aggression against the sovereignty of this or that country.”
Fayyad denied any direct or indirect communication between the United States and Hezbollah regarding IS and said that there were no official meetings taking place between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia, although he welcomed the thaw in relations between Tehran and Riyadh. “We hope it will develop into a fruitful dialogue and will usher in results that are not limited to Iraq but extend to the whole region,” he said.
The Hezbollah lawmaker categorically denied any military role for Hezbollah in Iraq, stating, “We have no military battlefield role in Iraq.” Hezbollah is, however, working on repairing relations between Hamas and the Syrian government, Fayyad acknowledged. “We do not spare any effort to repair the dysfunction that befell relations between resistance powers,” he said.
The text of the interview follows.
Al-Monitor: Al-Monitor recently reported, citing Hezbollah sources, that Hezbollah was training protection committees in the Bekaa Valley in anticipation of a potential offensive by IS and its jihadist allies. What is Hezbollah’s assessment of the jihadist threat to Lebanon, and is Lebanon ready to handle IS?
Fayyad: The IS threat is serious on the level of the whole region, and this issue does not need affirmation. What is happening in Iraq and Syria is stark. Lebanon is also in the eye of the storm, and in previous times, it dealt with security incidents that targeted various residential areas in Bekaa and the southern suburbs of Beirut, leaving scores of dead and wounded. IS and Jabhat al-Nusra are explicitly saying that they want to move forward with policies of security aggression.
Additionally, there is a serious threat along the eastern border with Syria in the Qalamoun mountain range, which is home to thousands of militants. On Aug. 2, they attacked the town of Arsal and took members of the army and police hostage, beheading [two of them] and threatening to behead more.
IS constitutes a threat to Lebanon for different reasons. The first is tactical and related to the need of these militants to settle in a town before winter sets in. The second is strategic, as these militants need to have a route to the coast and to a maritime port in the Akkar Valley. This is why Akkar and the north are among their targets. The third is dogmatic, wherein Lebanon is a part of the geography of the caliphate that they proclaimed. For all these reasons, Lebanon is under direct threat.
Hezbollah is not training groups. Many Christian border villages asked for our help to protect these towns and for military cooperation. We have a principle: This task is that of the Lebanese state and the Lebanese army. Hezbollah is ready to cooperate as part of the Lebanese social fabric. Yet, this is the task of the Lebanese army and security apparatuses. We have a role in Qalamoun on the Lebanese-Syrian borders, and we understand that our role is related to protecting the Lebanese borders, the Lebanese entity and the political-social formula in Lebanon.
Al-Monitor: What form does this “supportive role” you mentioned take?
Fayyad: This role is inside Lebanon as well, because the border villages are witnessing a popular movement [aimed at] providing protection. We are part of this movement. However, we are not playing an organized military or security role to protect these villages, especially in regard to Christian- and Druze-dominated towns. This is the role of the Lebanese state, and we are ready to be part of a comprehensive national cooperation process. Certainly, there is currently a general feeling — in particular on the part of minorities and especially Christians — that Hezbollah is a protection army for the Christians and minorities in Lebanon, given our work in the Qalamoun mountain range. This, however, does not in any case cancel the role of the state, which is to protect citizens.
Al-Monitor: How do you view the military assistance provided to the Lebanese army by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia? Do you believe it will make a difference in the fight against IS?
Fayyad: The arms that Lebanon is receiving in the form of aid from Western countries are not qualitative. Lebanon is in need of helicopters and missiles, which would help in changing the course of the battle, in addition to drones to track terrorist groups that are on the move in the mountains. Until this moment, we cannot deny the Western aid to the Lebanese army, and we welcome all aid. However, and honestly, this aid does not allow Lebanon to be in a position where it can decide this battle to its favor.
Al-Monitor: If that is the situation, could Hezbollah intervene out of the necessity to decide the course of this battle?
Fayyad: It is no secret that we are playing an effective role in the Qalamoun mountain range on the Lebanese-Syrian border. We are determined to fight extremist groups similar to al-Qaeda, mainly IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups. In fact, we do not differentiate between these groups, as they share a similar ideology and goals. Only the details differ. At the end of the day, they all have the same extremist vision and aim of uprooting minorities. This is why we are determined to fight these groups. If the situation were to worsen, Hezbollah is ready to defend Lebanon.
Al-Monitor: Inside Lebanon?
Fayyad: Let us wait and see how things play out.
Al-Monitor: [Future Movement leader] Saad Hariri’s return to Lebanon was seen as the result of an understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Is there an understanding between the two regional powers to prevent jihadists from reaching Lebanon? Has Hezbollah been in direct contact with Saudi Arabia in this regard?
Fayyad: There is no official communication between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia. Some normal meetings with the Saudi ambassador to Beirut take place on different occasions, but we cannot say that there is a dialogue between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia.
Al-Monitor: Are these periodic meetings?
Fayyad: No, they take place on different occasions. In the past and before the relations became tense, we held periodic meetings. Openness and dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia are certainly starting to take shape, given the visit of Iranian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hussein Amir Abdel Lahyan and the positive statements of Iran’s ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, who considered the results of the visit to be positive and constructive, hoping it will carry positive repercussions for the situation in the region.
Moreover, the statements of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about his readiness to visit Saudi Arabia and receive his Saudi counterpart constitute a good start. We hope it will develop into a fruitful dialogue and will usher in results that are not limited to Iraq but extend to the whole region. In fact, we do not believe that the conflicts and confrontations between Islamic states and Sunnis and Shiites in the region have a future. It is a mill of blood with no future or sense. We call for an alternative strategy, which is a strategy of communication, dialogue and attempts toward reaching an understanding over different issues.
Al-Monitor: There is debate in the United States on whether it should seek cooperation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against IS. Do you welcome US military support in Syria against IS, and has Hezbollah been approached by Western states?
Fayyad: We are currently facing a problem. There is a regional threat that is prone to becoming international at any moment, represented by IS. This is why IS should be dealt with as a problem threatening international security and peace. In this context, every country should play a serious and effective role in fighting this phenomenon. There now exists broad common ground in the Middle East in the name of confronting takfiri terrorism. And all efforts to confront this phenomenon are welcome but must take into consideration the sovereignty of states and not be an aggression against the sovereignty of this country or that country.
Al-Monitor: Have certain messages been conveyed to you, as Hezbollah?
Fayyad: No messages were conveyed to us, and we are not in any contact with the Americans.
Al-Monitor: What about a third party? Are there any signals that point to US willingness to engage Hezbollah, given Hezbollah’s experience in fighting these groups?
Fayyad: There is nothing new on the level of relations between the Americans and Hezbollah.
Al-Monitor: There are some in the United States calling for intervening in Syria, while at the same time moving against Assad and enhancing the arming of what is called the “moderate opposition.” If this were to happen, what will be Hezbollah’s response?
Fayyad: This game will not yield positive results in terms of reaching a political solution to the Syrian crisis. We call on all powers for an open confrontation, each [standing] their position, against extremist terrorism. We call on joining efforts to reach a political solution for the crisis in Syria, which does not exclude or impose prior conditions and that overcomes the impossible condition that requires Assad to exit the political process. Assad is the legitimate president of Syria, and regardless of this, he enjoys a broad base of representation. Any proposal for Assad stepping down constitutes an impossible condition that impedes a political solution. We want to reach a political solution that fosters a real democracy, and the people are the ones who determine the future of Syria and choose the leadership. We do not mind transparency and [the provision of] guarantees under international supervision on all levels.
Al-Monitor: State and economic neglect of Tripoli and Lebanon’s northern areas has been cited as [producing] a potential breeding ground for jihadists. Is there a broader plan to deal with the roots of terrorism in Lebanon, by lifting many of these regions out of poverty and desperation?
Fayyad: The phenomenon of extremist terrorism is not only a reaction to oppression and poverty. It is a phenomenon that has roots in Islamic history. However, at some points in time, social, economic and cultural factors were added, reinforcing this phenomenon and pushing it to the surface. It would be wrong to only tackle this issue at the military and security levels. A comprehensive social, cultural and jurisprudential strategy is required, in addition to broad cooperation on different levels between relevant countries, actors, religious guides and cultural and media centers, to fight this phenomenon. Even if IS as a political entity and state were exterminated, there would still be a need to eliminate its security group and cultural and ideological hotbeds, which are spread in various areas. This is a thorny process that I believe will take years.
Al-Monitor: Who do you think is responsible for the jurisprudential issue, the jurisprudential atmosphere if we might say, that leads the growth of this ideology?
Fayyad: All religious institutions — at Al-Azhar, in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and every Sunni country in the world — should clearly and explicitly fight [this phenomenon]. The thing about IS is that all parties announce that they oppose [its ideology] and refuse its practices, but there are many unannounced stances and subtle practices that may intersect with, and use this organization, bet on its success or even secretly support it. These powers are regional as well as international.
Al-Monitor: Lebanon is still without a president, governance is suffering and there are talks about extending the parliament’s term. What is Hezbollah’s plan to revive Lebanon’s political system, which appears to be crumbling? What threat does the political paralysis pose to Lebanon’s stability?
Fayyad: The presidential vacuum and legislative paralysis of the parliament, resulting from the March 14 camp’s boycott, have serious negative effects on Lebanon’s stability and security and the interests of its citizens. The legislative role of the parliament is in desperate need of revival, until a new president is elected. These issues are self-evident and in line with the requirements of the Lebanese national interest.
Al-Monitor: Syrian refugee numbers, currently more than 1.2 million, continue to rise in Lebanon, and are putting social and economic strains on the country, in addition to the potential security threat. Has Hezbollah approached the Syrian government about the refugee issue, and is there any plan to help the country deal with the refugee crisis?
Fayyad: There is no doubt that the refugee crisis carries serious negative effects for the Lebanese economy and security and constitutes one of the reasons behind the exacerbation of the economic situation and the worsening of the electricity sector. In addition, some refugee camps are located in the vicinity of Arsal and in the north, constituting a safe haven and providing infrastructure to terrorist groups. This issue is delicate and should be dealt with cautiously.
We cannot hold civilians responsible for what terrorist groups, which have taken refuge in camps, are doing. It is not the responsibility of Hezbollah to discuss the issue of camps and their future with the Syrian government, but that of the Lebanese government. The latter formed a special committee including a number of ministers to deal with the situation, but as far as I know, it has yet to yield results.
Al-Monitor: Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah publicly supported Hamas in its recent Gaza war with Israel, despite previous tensions over Hamas’ alleged involvement in the Syrian civil war. Al-Monitor has reported on efforts, involving Hezbollah, to repair relations between Hamas and the Syrian government. Have these efforts had any success?
Fayyad: We always seek to improve relations with resistance powers and put disputes aside to unify efforts toward helping the Palestinian people, even though we had disputes with Hamas over its role in the Syrian crisis. We do not hesitate in standing by the side of the Palestinian people when they are subject to Israeli aggression. It is an ethical stance before being political, and we are keen on resolving the points of contention with Hamas and any other resistance powers.
Al-Monitor: Is it true that Hezbollah is mediating between Hamas and the Syrian government to repair relations?
Fayyad: We do not spare any effort to repair the dysfunction that befell relations between resistance powers.
Al-Monitor: Are these efforts starting to bear fruit? Are we beginning to see a breakthrough?
Fayyad: The situation is a lot better than before.
Al-Monitor: It is now being said, today specifically, that Hezbollah has also a presence in Iraq to confront IS. Is Hezbollah playing any kind of role at any level against IS inside Iraqi territory?
Fayyad: We have no military battlefield role in Iraq.