US envoy: Hezbollah dragging Lebanon into Syrian conflict

In an interview with Al-Hayat, US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale says Hezbollah is dragging the country into the Syrian war, and addresses Geneva II and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

al-monitor David Hale speaks during a news conference after meeting Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in Baabda, near Beirut, May 8, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Dalati Nohra.

Topics covered

syrian civil war, special tribunal for lebanon, lebanese-syrian relations, iranian influence, internationalization of the syrian conflict, hezbollah in lebanon, hezbollah, geneva ii

Jan 22, 2014

US Ambassador in Beirut David Hale said he does not believe the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is behind the divisions in the country. Rather, in his view, the political violence that the STL is confronting is the source of these divisions. 

In a Jan. 16 interview with Al-Hayat, as the STL was opening in The Hague and just hours after a suicide bombing in the city of Hermel, Hale said there is no way to achieve any form of compromise regarding the tribunal, in response to a question about the possibility of reaching a compromise if dialogue between the United States and Iran progresses. 

He called for a distinction to be made between "real stability and false stability … [where the latter involves] one side monopolizing weapons and using a group to intimidate an unarmed group."

Hale said it was in the Lebanese people's interests to continue with the policy of self-distancing from the Syrian crisis. He said, "Unfortunately, there is one party trying to drag the country into this conflict. That party is Hezbollah." In response to the question of whether the partial lifting of sanctions on Iran would facilitate Lebanese-Iranian cooperation in the field of military aid and electricity, Hale said that Hezbollah is present in Lebanon, "yet receives high levels of support from Iran and follows an Iranian — not a Lebanese — agenda, and this is something we must keep in mind." He reiterated his country's position calling for a political solution in Syria, because "there is no place for a military solution."

Hale said, "The process of forming a government in Lebanon must be carried out without any foreign interference." He avoided commenting on whether the extension of President Michel Suleiman's term was the option supported by the international community, saying, "Lebanon is not occupied by foreign powers today, and this is a chance to elect a Lebanese president. … This is something we strongly support." Hale spoke in favor of the Saudi-French assistance provided to the Lebanese army, and multiple times mentioned Washington's support for the Lebanese army and security forces, saying that Washington was betting on them in the long run. 

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Hayat:  What is your comment on the explosion in Hermel this morning? This reality persists, despite people believing that if there is a positive atmosphere, Lebanon will be protected from these incidents. 

Hale:  We are in the process of assessing the facts. As of now we don't know much, but according to initial reports there were fatalities. We sympathize with the victims of the terrorist attack. If you are asking about the broader scene and indicators on a more comprehensive level, a few things come to mind: First, as we observe an increase in terrorism, particularly related to repercussions from the Syrian events, we are reminded of the importance our relationship with the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces to our two states. We have a long-term bet on the Lebanese army. And we believe that stability cannot be fully achieved in this country unless there is a strong army that is capable of responding to and preventing this type of incident. We have a lot of confidence in the members and leaders of the Lebanese army, and we believe that they are doing great work. But they need all the help they can get to prevent such attacks from continuing. 

Al-Hayat:  Today, the STL launched its first session. What does this suggest to you, given that these are considered historic moments?

Hale:  These are truly historic moments that have been long awaited. Achieving justice often requires time to enable the authorities to collect evidence and prove its case. The trial just began, so we will have to wait to see what's in store. But we feel very grateful that this long awaited moment has finally arrived. We give our full support to the STL, and we will make sure that it achieves justice in accordance with Lebanese law, of course, as well as in accordance with the resolutions issued by the UN Security Council, which granted the court authorization to begin its work. 

Al-Hayat There have been allegations that the United States did not cooperate with investigators on the subject of telephone calls made by the perpetrators. What is your comment?

Hale:  As the trial begins, I think it is necessary that we do not make any comments that suggest in any way that we are interfering in the ongoing court proceedings. Therefore, I think I need to be careful about what I say. But I will say that we have given our full support to the court since day one, from all sides, and what we see today makes us feel very grateful that this support has paid off. 

Al-Hayat:  The STL has been a cause for deep differences between Lebanese citizens, and the United States has reiterated the need to protect the stability of Lebanon. Don't you think that the STL will increase instability in the country, given that the court accuses Hezbollah of assassinating [former Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri?

Hale:  I would have posed the question in a different way. I do not think that the STL is causing the current divisions in Lebanon. Rather, I think that the axis of political violence that the court is confronting now is the source of these divisions, keeping in mind that using assassinations, bombs and violence to terrorize political enemies from one side is totally unacceptable. It is interesting that the victims of these attacks, rather than seeking revenge by resorting to violence, resorted to the international community and international authorities, asking them for justice. They asked [them] to determine the identity of those responsible, hoping that they would be punished. Thus, I will say that anchoring real stability requires the rule of law, and the tribunal is participating to a great extent in this process. 

Al-Hayat:  The United States has been accused of exploiting the court as one of the ways it puts pressure on Iran and Syria in order to curb their behavior at the regional level. In the event that an atmosphere of dialogue and understanding with Iran, which we are seeing now to some extent, becomes prevalent, do you think it is possible for a settlement to include the STL?

Hale:  The STL, as I mentioned, is based on Lebanese law and Security Council resolutions. These are the facts. And we are concerned with the stability of Lebanon. The Lebanese want real stability in Lebanon, and are calling for the rule of law. They want to ensure justice is achieved, and this means that there is absolutely no way for any compromise on the STL. 

Hezbollah and the interests of its patrons

Al-Hayat US diplomacy has always been concerned about the spread of repercussions from the Syrian crisis on Lebanese territory, and the impact of this crisis on Lebanese politics. Don't you think that you have failed in preventing the spread of these repercussions?

Hale:  The spread of these repercussions is clear to all. We've seen them and warned about them for a long time. The increase of repercussions in Lebanon and other neighboring countries — but especially in Lebanon, because of its geographic proximity [to Syria] — is witnessed at all levels: politics, the economy, the burden of refugees, social tensions and security problems … and things are getting worse. This is the reason that motivates us to give our full support, strength and influence to finding a political solution through the Geneva II conference to put an end to the conflict. There is no place for a military solution. We believe that the only possible solution is a political solution. Moreover, we believe it is in the vital interest of the Lebanese people to continue with a policy of self-preservation and self-distancing from the Syrian conflict, in order to minimize the severity of the spread of repercussions from the crisis, through a commitment to the Baabda Declaration.

Unfortunately, there is one party trying to drag the country into this conflict. That party is Hezbollah. It has put its interests and those of its foreign sponsors above the interests of the Lebanese through its involvement and fighting on the ground in Syria. This has stimulated the further spread of violence in a very dangerous way in this country. 

Al-HayatYou said that there is no place for a military solution to the Syrian crisis, but at the same time, President Barack Obama said in his speech at the UN in September 2013 that the United States will resort to all levels of its influence — including its military forces — to defend its interests, in light of it being forced to accept restrictions on its ability to influence the course of events in Syria. Are you suggesting that the factor of force is completely excluded in relation to the Syrian crisis? 

Hale:  Let the presidents speak for themselves. I am not the official responsible for our policy in Syria, and I do not want to directly address this question. But I will say that our focus and the the goal of all our actions is to find a political solution on the basis of Geneva. 

Al-Hayat:  Some Lebanese and some Syrians believe that terrorist groups have benefited from the US hesitation regarding the Syrian crisis. This is because the conflict has lasted a long time, which helped these groups develop their structures inside Syria. What is your comment? 

Hale:  I agree that the longer the conflict continues, the more dangerous the situation becomes and the repercussions spread — the latter include the terrorist groups we have seen entering Lebanon. Therefore, it is in everyone's interest to accomplish two things: first, finding a political solution that keeps things from getting worse. And second, preventing any political actor or party in this country from taking part in any activity in Syria. [Such intervention] would prolong the conflict. 

Our position in accordance with the ministerial statement 

Al-Hayat:  Lebanese politicians are trying to reach an agreement on a national unity government that includes Hezbollah. Is it true that US diplomacy promotes this option? 

Hale:  Yes, we are watching with great interest the activity and progress that could lead to the formation of a government.  The international community, international support groups, members of the Security Council and the United States are all parties that have at different times expressed their support for the formation of the government. But it is necessary that the Lebanese authorities — in particular, Prime Minister-designate [Najib Mikati] — embark on this formation. This is not part of our mission in any way at all. We do not involve ourselves, and we do not have a standing that entitles us to express an opinion on the various formulas under discussion, at least those that I have heard about personally. But what we will do in the event a government is formed is to express our desire to identify frameworks for our relationship. And we hope [our relationship with the future government] will be more positive than it is today. 

This specification of the frameworks for our relationship must be based on the composition of the government and based on the mandate that the government chooses for itself via the ministerial statement. By basing [the framework] on these foundations, or relationship will be sound. Therefore it is too early for me to comment on this topic. We will wait and see. 

Al-Hayat The US State Department criticized [Iranian Foreign] Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif because he visited the tomb of Imad Mughniyeh during his visit to Lebanon. Is directing this criticism [at Zarif] a means of objecting to Iranian influence in Lebanon, especially since every Iranian official who has visited Lebanon previously had visited Mughniyeh's tomb?

Hale:  Imad Mughniyeh was responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks the world has seen, and his actions are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American citizens. Thus, when something like this happens at his tomb, it is no surprise that the United States seeks to remind people of this man's history. And that is what we did.

Al-Hayat Was this issue also linked to Iranian influence in Lebanon?

Hale:  What I just described is a very simple reaction. 

Al-Hayat Some sources indicated that Zarif encouraged Hezbollah to facilitate the formation of a government and to make concessions, as a positive signal to the United States and Saudi Arabia. What is your opinion on this?

Hale:  I really don't know. I think it is important that the Lebanese make their own decisions for themselves in terms of their internal politics. This is our goal, and we have to make sure that this is what is taking place. Regardless of the political process taking place — whether it be forming a government or elections — it must occur without any foreign interference. We will wait and see and judge the results, and determine what kind of relationship we can develop based on these results. This is what we are concentrating on. 

Al-HayatDuring his press conference, Zarif spoke about cooperation between Iran and Lebanon, and also hinted that the partial lifting of sanctions that came about as part of the [five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany] P5+1 nuclear agreement will remove obstacles that were in the way of Iran offering support to the Lebanese army and to the electricity sector. What is your view on this? In your opinion, will the removal of sanctions imposed on Iran allow for [a greater] Iranian presence in Lebanon? 

Hale:  It's too early to talk about this. Currently, in the context of the Iranian nuclear talks, we are focused on the issues on the agenda in this regard. You know the nature [of these talks], and I am not responsible for these talks. I am not the right person to discuss this. This is our focus now: If the talks succeed, we will certainly see the results they yield. But I think that Hezbollah receives high levels of support from Iran and follows an Iranian — not a Lebanese — agenda, and this is something that we must keep in mind. And I think that we have to ask: What are the obstacles that this issue puts in the way of contributing to stability or instability in Lebanon? Based on the evidence, it is very clear that [Iranian support to Hezbollah] contributes to the promotion of instability and divisions in this country.

"There is no relationship between the government and our policy toward Iran"

Al-Hayat:  Regarding any potential positive signal Iran may send to Lebanon, do you think that Iran will facilitate the formation of the government at the end of the day in order to avoid any [additional] sanctions against Tehran that the US congress was [recently] discussing?

Hale:  I do not know Iran's motives. But I stress that, in our view, there is no relationship between the formation of the government in Lebanon and our policy toward Iran. The sanctions we have imposed on Iran are related to a number of factors, including the nuclear program, and this is the impetus for a set of sanctions. But there is also another set of sanctions, attributed mainly to Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, including what [Tehran] does here in Lebanon. This is our goal, knowing that the reasons for the sanctions and our goal in these sanctions are putting an end to its support for terrorism. 

Al-Hayat:  Everyone focuses on the American-Russian agreement on maintaining stability in Lebanon, the Baabda Declaration, ensuring the continuity of state institutions and respecting deadlines set in the constitution according to two statements issued by the Security Council. And there is also the International Support Group for Lebanon. Everyone has repeated these slogans and positions. How can this be implemented in practice? 

Hale:  You are correct to speak about the International Support Group. The matter is not limited to the United State and Russia. Although their roles are valuable, the matter involves a much wider group. The International Support Group includes all of the permanent members of the [UN] Security Council, in addition to the European Union, and all organizations are represented in it. And I think [this group] is a very valuable tool with respect to a large number of things. [The International Support Group] proves that the international community has an independent and balanced policy of supporting Lebanon. It shows that the international community is in agreement that it wants Lebanon to be independent, and to distance itself from the regional conflicts. The group is prepared to provide support in order to reach this goal. 

We work in collaboration with President Suleiman, and hope to cooperate with the future Lebanese government in some way to make progress toward achieving these goals. This is something that is clear and tangible in your question. We will give tangible support to the Lebanese army, and seek to obtain support from the Saudis, which is critical to achieving additional support. We have a long history of ties with the Lebanese army. We are very proud of this relationship, and we will continue with it. [This relationship] has achieved tangible results in providing support to some of the principles and objectives, including making sure that the Lebanese people move forward with their political decisions and overcome the political challenges throughout this year, in accordance with the constitution. It is necessary that the International Support Group continues to focus on implementing the Security Council resolution, and not just our statements. These resolutions are also necessary to a large extent to ensure real stability in Lebanon.

I want to draw attention to a specific point, because people are always talking about stability. I think it is important to distinguish between real stability and false stability. One side monopolizing weapons is not real stability. Stability based on one side intimidating an unarmed group is also not real stability. And stability based on a group's belief that it can remain inside the state when it suits them, and leave the state when it prevents them from achieving political goals, this is also not stability!

Al-Hayat Will the French support for the Lebanese army affect cooperation between Washington and the army, since the army will be provided with French weapons and equipment?

Hale:  No, not at all. We greatly support this initiative. We have always encouraged other nations to join us in our long-term partnership with the Lebanese army. There is ample space for donor parties to provide the type of equipment that the Lebanese army needs. And in my opinion, it is necessary that the Lebanese, the French and the Saudis cooperate. It is clear that this equipment meets the needs of the Lebanese army, and equipping the army is an important goal that we all contribute to. 

We support the Lebanese choices for the presidency 

Al-Hayat Since we are talking about international concerns regarding respect for the constitutional deadlines, is extending the term of President Suleiman an option supported by the international community to avoid a presidential vacuum?

Hale:  I also think it's premature to sit here and analyze the different hypothetical scenarios that may be on the table during the process of electing the president. We can achieve our goals in the international community — particularly in the United States, where we are beginning to do this — by listening to the Lebanese people and respecting the fact that this process is a Lebanese process, and its results will be clarified according to the requirements and traditions of the Lebanese constitution. I think it's an important opportunity for Lebanon, and anyone who takes office will be an important partner for all of us. But Lebanon is not occupied by foreign powers today, and thus this is a chance for the Lebanese to elect their president via Lebanese procedures, provided that there are clear choices. And this is something we strongly support.

Geneva II

Al-Hayat:  How do you foresee Geneva II? And how will it impact Lebanon in the event that it fails?

Hale:  I want to repeat that I am not responsible for what is happening at the Geneva II conference, and I will not go into details about it. But I think that this issue is important for Lebanon. We talk about the spread of the repercussions of the Syrian conflict on every aspect of life in this country, beginning with politics and including the economy and security. The refugee crisis constitutes a huge burden. Yesterday [Jan. 15], the United States announced that it had sent additional support worth $71 million, in addition to the amount of $304 million that we had originally granted to Lebanon. The need is great, and we will continue to assist Lebanon in addressing [the refugee issue]. Likewise, we will continue to look for ways to isolate Lebanon from the [Syrian] crisis. But the only solution in the long term for this problem is to put an end to the war in Syria, and the only way to end it is through the adoption of a political process. This is what we are committed to doing.

Al-Hayat:  There is speculation that [Geneva II] will fail because the Iranians will not participate in the conference. During his visit to Lebanon, Zarif said that the states or the forces that prevent Iran from participating will regret it. 

Hale:  All I can say, from my position here in Beirut, is that the fate of Lebanon depends to a large extent on the success of this process. And we are pleased that Lebanon has accepted the invitation to attend. I think that we should all be concerned with peace and stability in this part of the world, and we must make serious efforts to ensure this process succeeds.


Al-Hayat What effect will the fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] and the Free Syrian Army have on Lebanon, given that ISIS is involved in some of what is happening [in Lebanon]? 

Hale:  We are concerned about the increasing frequency of attacks by [ISIS] and other organizations whose influence has begun to extend to Lebanon. And we believe that [these groups] constitute a major threat to Lebanon on many levels. We provide our full support to the political and military leadership in the context of their efforts to fight terrorism and defend against it, and more importantly, to prevent it from occurring. 

Al-Hayat:  You said that your work requires you to communicate with all Lebanese. When will that include Hezbollah? Do you communicate with Hezbollah indirectly through some senior officers in the security apparatus in Lebanon, as some say, or through some other parties?

Hale:  I am pleased that you asked this question, and I can tell you decisively that there is no communication or dialogue, whether direct or indirect, between the US government and Hezbollah. The reason for this is very simple: The continuing terrorist activities of Hezbollah have made us view it as a terrorist organization. Until that changes, our policy will remain unchanged.

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