Samy Gemayel: Hezbollah intervention helped bring Syria war to Lebanon

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Article Summary
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Samy Gemayel, member of parliament and a senior leader of Lebanon’s Kataeb Party, said, “When you decide to go fight a war in another country, you have to expect that these people will go fight you in your own country.”

BIKFAYA, Lebanon — Samy Gemayel, a senior member of the Kataeb (Phalange) Party, is not counting on a new Lebanese president in May 2014, when the term of the current president, Michel Suleiman, ends.

“If the situation is as it is today, I don’t think that any president will be elected, because I have a feeling that Hezbollah does not want it,” said Gemayel, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at his home office in his village of Bikfaya. “Hezbollah does not want anything, any institutional body, to be working properly, so I think that in the current situation everything is blocked. So there is no reason why the presidency will be an exception.”

Gemayel, a member of parliament and the son of former Lebanese president and Phalange leader Amin Gemayel, turned 33 this month, but even at this young age, he is already making his mark on Lebanese politics. While a member of the March 14 Alliance, Gemayel also calls for Lebanese politicians to be free of regional alignments and has sometimes criticized his coalition allies on this point.

The Kataeb Party, Gemayel offered, has “proved how independent it is, from any kind of regional alliance. It’s a purely Lebanese party that doesn’t take orders from anyone and is able to take any decision that is in the interest of the country, without taking anything else into consideration.” 

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Gemayel asserted that electoral reform alone is not enough for Lebanon to break the political deadlock and therefore advocates a “big package” of reforms to be negotiated in the context of a summit involving all the country's key players and parties. “We don’t want anything to be held outside Lebanon,” he said. “And we need to think about all the issues — the issues of how to deal with the current crisis, how to manage our pluralism, how to deal with the weapons of Hezbollah, how to deal with the weapons of the Palestinian camps, how to deal with all our problems as one package. “

With regard to Hezbollah, Gemayel blamed the organization for bringing the Syria conflict to Lebanon. “I really believe that the fact that Hezbollah went there, it attracted these people to come and fight it here. You know, when you decide to go fight a war in another country, you have to expect that these people will go fight you in your own country,” Gemayel contended. “If Lebanon was neutral, we had more chances of being spared than we have today.”

Gemayel said that he hoped the recent trend toward engagement with Iran will lead to a change in Hezbollah’s policies. He explained, “Our problem with Hezbollah is not Hezbollah in itself. It’s the way Hezbollah is dealing with the Lebanese people — using force, on the Lebanese people, and dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has nothing to do with Lebanon. These are our problems with Hezbollah. Any agreement that will keep Hezbollah acting the way it is, the way Hezbollah is acting today, we will fight it, because we will not allow Hezbollah to keep acting the way it is acting in Lebanon. Any agreement that will pacify Hezbollah, it would be something positive for us. It depends on what is the result of this agreement.” 

Gemayel, whose brother Pierre Gemayel served as a member of parliament and minister of industry before being assassinated in 2006, said that the best way to address the rise of extremism in Lebanon and the region is through building moderate political parties. “The way Lebanon was ruled in the past 20 years with moderate Sunnis, giving the people what they need, giving them education. … This is the way you protect yourself from extremism,” Gemayel assessed. “You cannot fight extremism. You cannot fight it with weapons.”

Appealing for dialogue in Lebanese and regional politics, Gemayel observed, “You know, the worse thing is blood and war. This is the worst. Everything is less than this. Everything that can prevent us from going to war or shedding more blood is better than having this. So let’s sit together and talk as adults.”

The full text of the interview follows.

Al-Monitor:  What is your sense of the process for electing the next president of Lebanon? I believe the current president’s term expires in May. Who, in your view, are the leading candidates?

Gemayel:  First of all, I don’t think that we will be able to elect a new president.

Al-Monitor:  Why?

Gemayel:  Unless something happens [between] now to March or April. But if the situation is as it is today, I don’t think that any president will be elected. Because I have a feeling that Hezbollah does not want anything, any institutional body, to be working properly, so I think that in the current situation, everything is blocked. So there is no reason why the presidency will be an exception.

We couldn’t have a proper electoral law. We didn’t have an election, a parliamentary election. We were not able to form a new government, so this is a trend. Why would the presidency be an exception to this trend? Unless there is a change — and this change, if it happens, it means that Lebanon is allowed again to have proper institutions — it means that you will have a new government, and have parliamentary elections and have electoral law. So, you know, it’s a package. You cannot take one thing from the package.

So today, you have two blocks, each block wants to put its hands on the country. So there is no space for anything in the middle, and no one will allow the other to put their hands on the country. So that’s why no one wanted an election. Because everyone was afraid that the other side would win the election, then form a government, then lead the country. No one wanted to give this opportunity to the other, so they kept the status quo. And for the government, it’s the same. No one wants to give any advantage to the other in the formation of the new government.

So I don’t think, I don’t see, that any elections will be held.

Al-Monitor:  What is, in your view, the first step that is needed to bring about the change and reform? Is it a new electoral law? What step is needed?

Gemayel:  No, I believe we need more than an electoral law. The electoral law is part of the big package that should be worked on in a big convention. That will maybe take a month, everybody gathered, to think about the future of the country.

We need a new … it’s like the Taif Agreement, you know. But we need it to be held in Lebanon. We don’t want anything to be held outside Lebanon. And we need to think about all the issues — the issues of how to deal with the current crisis, how to manage our pluralism, how to deal with the weapons of Hezbollah, how to deal with the weapons of the Palestinian camps, how to deal with all our problems as one package.

And because, you know, it’s big. Everything is related, so you cannot solve one issue without solving the other. You cannot solve the issue of the weapons of Hezbollah without solving the Palestinian weapons. You cannot tell Hezbollah to give up its weapons without giving Hezbollah guarantees in the institutional system.

Everything is related, that’s why nothing will be solved … separately from the other. That’s why I believe we need a big congress. We need to sit together, and maybe under the patronage of the international community or the UN or something like that, to be able to sit together and think.

We were calling a few years back for a truth and reconciliation process. … It was not held in Lebanon after the civil war. You know, we finished the civil war, [but] we didn’t sit together and talk about the war. That’s why we still have the same grudges; we still have the same sensibilities. Everyone, you know, is afraid of the other, because … we didn’t open up to each other after the war. And this is very important. You cannot build a country if you cannot write a history book. We don’t have a history book, and this is because we didn’t talk about what happened in the war. We didn’t solve this whole historical issue.

This is why we believe that the Lebanese people, through their representatives, need to sit together and talk frankly to each other, and say, OK, if we want to live in this country, we have to agree on few things. If we [do] not, if we cannot agree on these things, better [to live] separate than to live in a constant war. You know, the worse thing is blood and war. This is the worst. Everything is less than this. Everything that can prevent us from going to war or shedding more blood is better than having this. So let’s sit together and talk as adults.

No one can eliminate anyone in Lebanon. Hezbollah cannot eliminate us; we cannot eliminate Hezbollah. No one can impose his views on the other. You will never oblige Hezbollah to be pro-Saudi, and you will never oblige the Tayyar Moustakbal, or the Future Movement, to be pro-Iranian. This is not going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not in a hundred years.

It means that if we don’t want to agree to have a neutral Lebanon, no one will lead the other to any kind of bigger alliance. It means that we will not lead Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, and we will not [give] Lebanon to Iran. Lebanon should be neutral. Because if we, if any party, continues to try to get Lebanon here or there, Lebanon will stay in a state of war.

And this is one example of the things we need to talk about. We need to talk about the corruption in the country. How, the way, the country is being managed. The whole, the corruption and the whole system. … Decentralization is the key to stop all this mafia that is monopolizing the wealth of the country and taking people hostage. And it is the case because today you have a few people who are ruling the country, and they have the power to use the people’s money. So it’s very easy. You vote for me, I give you what you need. If you don’t vote for me, I don’t give you what you need. And this is how the country is ruled.

Al-Monitor:  How do you see the future of the Phalange Party?

Gemayel:  … We call it Kataeb. We don’t like to use the word Phalange because of the historical thing. I believe that our party is doing a very good job. It’s been improving a lot in the past few years, and it [elevated] itself as the third option in the Christian street. Because the party proved how independent it is, from any kind of regional alliance, it’s a purely Lebanese party that doesn’t take orders from anyone and is able to take any decision that is in the interest of the country without taking anything else into consideration. And sometimes we even have to criticize our allies. We are maybe the only group that criticizes its allies in Lebanon, because we are really free to say whatever we believe and whatever we see as right. And this is giving us a lot of support in the streets. People are appreciating the fact that our party is really independent and … , is being objective and taking only into consideration the Lebanese people's interest.

Al-Monitor I was just at this Manama Dialogue, where part of the discussion is regional security issues. The foreign minister of Iraq [Hoshyar Zebari] spoke of a possible Islamic emirate in areas controlled by terrorists in Syria. The Qatari foreign minister, Khaled bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, seemed to be calling for an urgent humanitarian intervention — and Qatar never backed foreign terrorists in Iraq — and also that they need to intervene. It seemed they were talking less about a military solution and more about moving ahead with a political solution. And Ryan Crocker, probably the most respected former US diplomat, said this week, “We need to start talking to the [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime again about counterterrorism and other issues. As bad as he is, he’s not as bad as the jihadists.” Do you believe, do you agree with this concern that seems to be out there about the rise of terrorism in Syria? And what might it mean for how you will engage in Syria and with Assad?

Gemayel:  I fully agree. We have a big problem. Unfortunately, you know, extremisms rises with violence. The more you have violence, the more you will go toward extremism. And you know, for the first nine months of the Syrian revolution, it was purely peaceful demonstrations. For nine months. And no one raised a hand to help these people; and they were being killed in these demonstrations. … The snipers were killing people inside these demonstrations for seven or eight months, and no one moved a finger to help these people. So … things started getting more violent, because these demonstrators started to [respond], reply and fight back. And as things were getting more violent, the more the moderate people in Syria, they stayed at home, and it’s the extremists who took the lead in Syria . It’s been already 1½ years since the extremists took the lead in Syria, and, yes, today it’s an open war in Syria. And this open war, it’s not between the moderates and the government. It’s between the extremists and the government. But what led to what is going on today is the fact that this government, for nine months, they were fighting their people, and they pushed these people to become more violent and go to extremist groups.

And Hezbollah did the same in Lebanon. For seven years, Hezbollah was fighting the moderate Sunnis in Lebanon, and they, you know, in the events of May 7, they completely broke the Sunni moderates in Lebanon. When the moderates cannot defend themselves, they will go toward extremists. That’s how someone like Mr. [Ahmad al-] Assir was able to gather so much support in the Sunni street. So they went to a more extremist guy. So Hezbollah, the way it dealt with the Sunni moderates, they pushed the Sunnis to go to more extremists — the same way the Syrian regime pushed the Syrian people — or to stay at home or to go to the extremists. So, I believe that the mistake was made before, and I don’t know if today we can still do the right thing. Today, all the scenarios are bad scenarios. All the scenarios are bad scenarios.

Let’s take for example Syria. Mr. Bashar al-Assad will never be able to regain power in the whole country again. It’s over. He cannot bring Syria back to where it was. Today he lost. There is at least 60% or 65% of the Syrian territories that are not under his control. And it’s very difficult for him to regain control of all them, because the Syrian regime is in a confrontation with at least 60% of its people. So it is going to be very difficult for the Syrian regime to regain power.

So it means there are two solutions, or things will stay that way — open war. And I don’t know how long he can survive in this situation, because the people he is fighting are people who are not afraid to die. On the other hand, the people fighting with Assad are afraid to die. And this is a big difference between the two camps. You cannot fight people who are not afraid to die with people who are afraid to die. … So, I believe that in the long run, I don’t see that Assad can sustain. He cannot sustain. He can maybe resist a few years. He can stay there four, five, six, seven years, but in the end …

You know, it’s like you saw in the movie 300? You can’t fight with 10%, can’t fight 90% … They can win one battle, two battles, three battles, five, six, 10 … , but at the end they will lose. There is the law of numbers. Assad does not have a [supply of people]. … There is a limited number. Assad has a limited number. As years pass, this number will go down. His opponents, they have a resourceful [supply]; there are always people coming, from all around the world, coming to fight. So the numbers are not going down; the numbers can only rise. Hezbollah can send 10,000. Hezbollah can send 20,000 one year, but Hezbollah cannot send 30,000 every year. Hezbollah can fight one, two or three years, but Hezbollah cannot fight 10 years in Syria. You have only 1 million Shiites in Lebanon. They cannot be 20 million …  So the resources of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah — [whether] they [like] it or they don’t — it’s a limited source. 

On the other hand, the other people, they have unlimited resources — unlimited. They are recruiting people from 19 million Sunni Syrians. Nineteen! And don’t forget that the Sunni guy fighting in the Syrian army is being accused of treason by 80% of his country. So that guy, while he is fighting, he is afraid. He is afraid that someone will kill his sister, his brother, his father in his village. So the situation of the Syrian army is not very healthy, you see. And it’s not sustainable.

They can win a few battles, OK. They are winning a few battles. They can do a Qusair, OK. They bring all the people from Lebanon; Hezbollah goes there. And they use all the planes. OK, they can win Qusair, which is as big as Bikfaya. It’s twice [the size of] Bikfaya, Bikfaya, my village here. So it’s not a big thing you know. But they cannot win Homs. They cannot win Aleppo. They cannot win Damascus. They cannot win the cities.

Al-Monitor:  But what about the regional concern about the growth, as this time goes on, of terrorists … ?

Gemayel:  You know, let me tell you something. I can tell you a lot of nice stories about how the Russians are helping, and how the Americans are not helping, and the Americans are on the side, and the Europeans are afraid of the extremism, and go there and go there. But in the end, there are war rules. [Despite] all the support Mr. Bashar can get from all the countries in the world, there are rules on the ground that the Russians and Americans cannot change. The Americans couldn’t protect the US from September 11 because these guys are human bombs. They are human bombs. You cannot protect yourself from a human bomb. And the proof is that no country has been able to protect itself from human bombs. People who are not afraid to die, you cannot fight this kind of people.

Al-Monitor:  So what do you do about them?

Gemayel:  Actually, the best way to fight them is through moderate people, you know, like what happened in Egypt. I believe this is the way you fight these people. The way Lebanon was ruled in the past 20 years with moderate Sunnis, giving the people what they need, giving them education … This is the way you protect yourself from extremism. You cannot fight extremism. You cannot fight it with weapons.

That's what we said to Hezbollah, when Hezbollah was attacked in their suburbs. You cannot say that we are fighting al-Qaeda in Syria so they don’t come to Lebanon. This is not the way you will protect Lebanon, because this is exactly the way you will get them to enter Lebanon and to fight you inside Lebanon and to destroy Lebanon. This is the best way to bring these people in Lebanon, to go fight them there. And the best way to protect Lebanon is to fortify the moderate Sunnis.

Let’s sit together and see how we can look at these cells that are still small and try to get these people from these cells and try to destroy these cells by giving employment to these people, providing them with their needs. You know, the way is not to fight them with violence, because as violent as you can be, they are more violent than you are.

If Hezbollah thinks that it will be able to win this war with violence, it is wrong. Because these people are more violent than it is.

Al-Monitor:  Let me ask about Hezbollah.

Gemayel:  I was watching, let me just tell you. Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me a video on YouTube. You should watch it. I don’t think you will understand a lot of what’s being said, but just take a look. It’s 30 minutes. It’s about Jabhat al-Nusra. It’s about the attack on Maaloulah; they attacked a Syrian army stronghold in Maaloulah. So it’s 30 minutes, and the first 15 minutes, it’s with a guy who [detonated] himself in the [attack]. They did an interview with him. They showed him. He talked to these people. He said goodbye to everyone. For 15 minutes you get to know the guy. And then they show you the guy in the truck, wiring himself to the thing and preparing himself to go die. And he says all with a smile on his face. Very happy guy. And then they show you the truck going and exploding, and then they show you the people of [Jabhat] al-Nusra going [along] on the ground and taking over the Syrian army stronghold and killing the Syrian army people. When you watch this movie for 30 minutes, you see that these guys are not a joke. These guys are very serious and very well-trained.

And, when you take a look at these guys, you understand that there is no way Bashar al-Assad can face these guys. No way. It’s a mentality …  You cannot say to a guy who has been given $200 per month, go fight these people. Completely illuminated people. They are living in another world. It’s very frightening. You have to watch this movie.

I sent it to all my friends. Just take a look. It’s interesting. It’s very important for us to watch this movie to understand with whom we are dealing. These guys, they don’t have anything to do with [how] you live everyday. They are not human beings; these people are not human beings. Because they don’t have any kind of affection or love. They are filled with hatred, and they are completely blinded. There is no way to deal with these people. No way. He’s very happy! He has a smile on his face; he’s going to die. And for him, he is fulfilling his duty to his God.

Al-Monitor:  How much responsibility do you give to Hezbollah for the expansion of terrorism and instability from Syria to Lebanon, and do you think it would have been different if Hezbollah didn’t send forces or get involved?

Gemayel:  I already answered this question. Exactly. I really believe that the fact that Hezbollah went there, it attracted these people to come and fight them here. You know, when you decide to go fight a war in another country, you have to expect that these people will go fight you in your own country. There is no reason they will say, “No,” when they enter the borders of Lebanon, “We don’t fight them,” because Lebanon we don’t approach. No, this is a joke. When you say as Hezbollah did, that there are no more borders, I will cross the borders, and go fight in Syria, you have to expect that these people you are fighting in Syria will also cross the borders and come fight you where you come from.

You know, it’s the first time in the history of Lebanon, in the history of Lebanon, that al-Qaeda actually [carried out] an explosion in Lebanon. It’s the first time in the history of Lebanon. Never, al-Qaeda, had never, sent a suicide bomber inside Lebanon. Never. This is the first time. Because we went there, and we attracted them here. How do you explain that al-Qaeda had never operated in Lebanon before Hezbollah went to Syria? How? Until today, all the explosions and the blasts were targeting specific people. But this is the first time we had suicide bombers targeting civilians. First time.

Al-Monitor:  And you think that if Hezbollah had not sent forces, Lebanon would have been spared?

Gemayel:  If Lebanon was neutral, we had more chances of being spared than we have today. For sure. If today we have a 2% or 1% [chance] to be spared, if we were neutral we would have maybe a 20-30% chance to be spared. Today, we have 0% chance of being spared. It’s over. You are not spared, you are inside this. You have people dying in Tripoli. You have people dying with car bombs in Tripoli and in the suburbs, in Hezbollah’s regions.

Al-Monitor:  What about the trend with Iran, where we have this interim agreement, the possibility that that could lead to engagement on other issues in the region, maybe Syria, maybe a constructive role? Do you see this as good for Lebanon? Better relations between the West and Iran?

Gemayel:  Everything that can bring people together and calm things and bring peace to the region is positive for me. Everything that can bring peace and that can let countries agree and stop the fighting is positive for me. Because peace means the moderates will win in the long run. War? It means the extremists will win in the long run. So, as much as you have peace in a country, you will have moderates taking over. When you have war, you have the extremists taking over, so, for sure, we will encourage any kind of peace talks, of calming things between the different powers in the region.

Al-Monitor:  Will it have an effect, in your view, on Hezbollah’s role within Lebanese politics?

Gemayel:  Listen, our problem with Hezbollah is not Hezbollah in itself. It’s the way Hezbollah is dealing with the Lebanese people — using force, on the Lebanese people and dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has nothing to do with Lebanon. These are our problems with Hezbollah. Any agreement that will keep Hezbollah acting the way it is, the way Hezbollah is acting today, we will fight it because we will not allow Hezbollah to keep acting the way it is acting in Lebanon. Any agreement that will pacify Hezbollah, it would be something positive for us. It depends on what is the result of this agreement. If this agreement is in the interest of Lebanon, in the interest of peace in Lebanon, we will support it whatever the content, but if the agreement will be at the expense of Lebanon — the expense of peace in Lebanon, the expense of building a state in Lebanon — we will fight it.

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Found in: salafists, phalangists, lebanese-syrian relations, jihadists in syria, jabhat al-nusra, hezbollah, bashar al-assad

Andrew Parasiliti is president and chief content officer of Al-Monitor. He previously served as director of RAND’s Center for Global Risk and Security and international marketing manager of RAND’s National Security Research Division; editor of Al-Monitor; executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US and corresponding director, IISS-Middle East; a principal at the BGR Group; foreign policy advisor to US Senator Chuck Hagel; director of the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; and director of programs at the Middle East Institute. He received his Ph.D. from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; an M.A. from the University of Virginia; and a B.A., cum laude, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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