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Lebanese president provokes outcry with Hezbollah comment

President Michel Aoun stated in an interview that Lebanon needs Hezbollah’s arms to defend the country from potential Israeli aggression, stirring harsh criticism from his political opponents.
Newly elected Lebanese president Michel Aoun sits on the president's chair inside the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RTX2R7JE

Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s description of Hezbollah’s weapons as complementary to those of the Lebanese army provoked strong reactions on the part of the United Nations, the March 14 coalition and the Future Movement, which is headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

In an interview with Egypt's CBC during his visit to Cairo Feb. 12, Aoun said, “As long as Israel continues to occupy lands and the Lebanese army is not strong enough to stand up to it, we feel the need to have the resistance army as a complement to the Lebanese army's actions.”

Aoun said, “The resistance’s arms are not contrary to the state project; otherwise we could have not tolerated it. It is an essential part of Lebanon’s defense."

“Hezbollah represents the people of the south. They are the inhabitants of the land who defend themselves when Israel tries to occupy or threaten them,” Aoun said, noting, “It is no longer an urgent matter to discuss the need to strip Hezbollah of its weapons, because Israel continues to occupy our lands and is seeking to take over Lebanon’s waters,” a reference to the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shuba hills areas that have been occupied by Israel since 1967.

Aoun also said he is confident that Hezbollah will not point its weapons at the Lebanese people or sow confusion in the country. He added that the issue is being discussed “within Lebanon’s strategic defense plan, which might or might not include said arms, depending on what is necessary.”

Commenting on Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, Aoun said the move came after terrorist groups entered Arsal. “After the liberation of Qalamoun, the danger had passed as terrorist groups became restricted,” he said.

Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said in a statement, “UN Security Council resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701 clearly call for the dissolution and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. Keeping arms in the hands of Hezbollah and other armed groups outside the state framework would limit Lebanon’s capacity to exercise its sovereignty and full authority over its geographical area. We urge Lebanese to exploit the current political momentum to look into a defense strategy led by Lebanese themselves.”

Fares Soueid, secretariat coordinator of the March 14 coalition, derided Aoun in a Feb. 11 tweet. “We have read the statements of Aoun, who spoke about the weakness of the army and Hezbollah’s ability to defend Lebanon,” he said, asking in another, “Why don’t we demand the abolition of Resolution 1701 and place the army’s weapons in the hands of Hezbollah?"

“I understand if Hezbollah’s secretary general defends the party’s weapons, but I don’t get it when the president does it. Relying on Hezbollah to stand up against Israel does not make sense,” Soueid wrote in another tweet.

In still another, he said, “If Aoun believes that Hezbollah is able to protect Lebanon, why don’t we call on Hassan Nasrallah to move to [the presidential palace in] Baabda?” 

The Future Movement issued two statements in response to Aoun’s remarks. The first on Feb. 15 confirmed its “commitment to Resolution 1701 and all other pertinent international resolutions related to Lebanon, which preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty and security.” The statement clarified, “The Lebanese state’s arms are the only legitimate weapons in Lebanon, as per UN Resolution 1701.”

In the second statement issued Feb. 23, the movement condemned Nasrallah’s remarks against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, saying that they would affect Lebanon’s relations with the Gulf after the recent improvement following Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In a Feb. 16 speech, Nasrallah said that some Arab Gulf states had started secretly normalizing relations with Israel and accused Saudi Arabia of occupying Bahrain and killing the Yemeni people.

The movement reiterated the importance of “UN Resolution 1701, which aims to protect Lebanon’s security and stability in the south and along the coast,” adding, “Any decision seeking to evade or underestimate this resolution means to renege on international commitments, which could have negative repercussions at the security, political and economic levels,” a jab at Aoun’s remarks.

A member of the Future Movement’s political bureau told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that he found it strange that Aoun chose to defend Hezbollah’s arms and participation in the Syrian war during his visit to Egypt, only a month after he visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar to repair the Gulf-Lebanese ties.

The senior member does not expect Saudi Arabia to criticize Aoun in the media in response to his positions favoring Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, but discarded the possibility that Riyadh will resume the $4 million military grant that Saudi Arabia had suspended on Feb. 19 because Lebanon failed to condemn attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

The source believes there have been important shifts in Aoun’s orientations, starting with his Feb. 3 call for reconciliation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as he represents legitimacy in Syria and counters terrorism and because it is important to consult with him to arrange for the return of Syrian refugees. Aoun has thus derailed the self-distancing policy followed by the Lebanese government since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011.

Political analyst Abbas Sabbagh told Al-Monitor that it is no surprise for Aoun to state that Hezbollah’s arms are necessary to counter Israeli aggression and liberate the occupied Lebanese territory. He said as much in his inaugural speech on Oct. 31, and the right to resist was also included in the ministerial statement. Sabbagh explained that Aoun is committed to a memorandum of understanding signed with Hezbollah in 2006, an alliance that brought him to the presidential seat.

Some may take the view that Aoun is returning Hezbollah the favor of backing him for the presidency. Others attribute this position to the escalating conflict over the elections law between Aoun and his allies and Hariri and his allies, in addition to the struggle for power in Lebanon between the Future Movement and its allies and Aoun and Hezbollah.

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