Lebanon after the Assassination of Wissam al-Hassan: An Interview with Antoine Haddad

On October 31, 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views interviewed Dr. Antoine Haddad. Dr. Haddad is Secretary-General of Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement, DRM), a multi-confessional reformist party founded in 2001 by late minister and MP Nassib Lahoud, who was a front-running candidate for Lebanon’s 2008 presidential elections on behalf of the March 14 coalition.

Tajaddod left the coalition in 2009. DRM is strongly attached to the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon, calls for deep political and economic reforms and supports the Arab Spring revolutions and the quest of Arab populations for freedom and democracy. Dr. Haddad is an economic consultant and a former university professor.

SGV: Until very recently, Lebanon has not experienced wide-scale protests and violence like other countries have during the “Arab Spring.” However on October 19, a car bomb attack killed Lebanese intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan. Who perpetrated this attack?

AH: It’s early to tell precisely who perpetrated this odious crime that also killed two other persons, injured some 100 civilians and badly damaged one of Beirut’s densely populated neighborhoods. But there is consensus to link the elimination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan to the arrest last month of former minister Michel Samaha for carrying in his private car explosive devices from Damascus to Lebanon, intended to be used against Lebanese politicians opposed to the Syrian regime.

President of the Republic Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati both made public statements confirming this link. This equates to a preliminary accusation of the Syrian regime of perpetrating this crime. Some of the Lebanese opposition figures went further, accusing Iran, the closest ally to Syria, and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, of being also implicated in this terrorist attack. Those who extend their accusation to Iran and Hezbollah put this in the context of Iran’s will to compensate in Lebanon the cards they have lost in Syria.

SGV: How are the Lebanese people responding to this terrorist attack? What is the general mood in Lebanon?

AH: At the official level, all parties, from the governmental majority led by Hezbollah to the mainly March 14 opposition, condemned the attack. But the opposition underlines that political assassinations have only targeted figures and leaders associated with the March 14 opposition coalition. They argue that assassinations were on hold since 2008 after the Doha agreement that split power between the two rival camps, then they resumed under the current government largely dominated by pro-Iran and pro-Syria parties.

Lately, March 14 declared the total boycott of the government. They call for a neutral non-partisan cabinet that will supervise the forthcoming elections in Spring 2013 and deal with the acute economic and financial crisis that brought Lebanon’s GDP growth down to less than 1%, unemployment up to 12% and poverty incidence to 30% of the total population.

SGV: Is it possible more attacks against Lebanese officials are forthcoming, and if these acts are intended to create instability and fuel sectarian division, will the Lebanese people remain steadfast and united or will they succumb to the violence?

AH: With the conflict in Syria exacerbating, and the Syrian regime isolated and cornered, further terrorist attacks in Lebanon are not to be excluded. Although the Lebanese are deeply divided between supporting the regime and supporting the revolution, and almost along sectarian lines, a neutrality policy toward the Syrian conflict is still possible, and it is in my sense in the best interest of Lebanon.

This will require an actual, rigorous implementation of not just verbal adherence to the “dissociation” policy first announced by PM Mikati then endorsed by the National Dialogue Conference held under the auspices of President Sleiman and that includes the whole political Lebanese spectrum.

On the agenda will be the total closing of Lebanese borders before weapons and gunmen from all parties and in the two directions and unconditional hospitality and protection be provided to Syrian civilian refugees. Obviously, this will necessitate a neutral government or at least a more balanced cabinet than the current one.

SGV: Many Western analysts claim that neighboring countries including Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all have an interest in supporting different Lebanese factions. Is their influence and support contributing toward Lebanese stability and sovereignty or towards the destabilization of Lebanon?

AH: This is historically true, but since 2010 Saudi Arabia and Qatar lost most of their influence in Lebanon. The Syrian regime is busy fighting its own people, although its nuisance capacity is still high. This leaves us with Iran as the major power broker.

Its strength derives from Hezbollah who almost monopolizes the political representation of Lebanese Shia, runs a well-trained non-state military branch, and has no problem declaring that it is an “organic part” of Iran’s regional strategy. This a major factor of destabilization for Lebanon, due to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its open conflict with the UN Security Council, the West, Israel and the majority of Arab countries.

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SGV: What is your greatest concern for Lebanon at this very moment?

AH: By order of importance and gravity, my first concern is the spill-over of violence from Syria to Lebanon as a result of the growing military involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict. That would be the worst development because it could entail a generalized Sunni-Shia conflict. Hopefully, we are not there yet.

The second most threatening development is the occurrence of a regional war involving Iran. Lebanon will be a major arena for such a devastating war, and will probably pay the highest human and material price.

Our third most important fear is the persistence of the status quo under the current pro-Iran government. This translates into an ugly mix of assassinations, turmoil, instability, lack of investments, recession, unemployment and ramping poverty.

SGV: Your party, the Democratic Renewal Movement, is a secular-oriented party allied with the March 14 Alliance. What is your party’s vision for the future of Lebanon and what steps are being implemented in order to achieve these goals?

AH: Lebanon has the potential to be a “wealthy” country, with the highest human capital indices in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It certainly needs – and deserves – a better governance based on transparency and efficiency. This quest is a common denominator for all Lebanese. But Lebanese citizens are mostly hostages of communal fears and concerns related to religious and ethnic belonging, which keeps sectarian parties in control of the polity.

The Taef agreement, reached in 1989 after fifteen years of civil and regional wars, provides a multiphase mechanism to deal with these concerns and ensure the gradual transition toward a fully democratic non-sectarian state.  For this to work, Lebanon needs the cessation of regional and foreign intervention in its internal frictions. This is a prerequisite for a viable political process toward stability, reforms, sustainable development and genuine state-building.

SGV: Can you explain how what happens in Syria directly impacts what happens in Lebanon? How divided are Lebanese between those who support Bashar Assad and those who support the Syrian opposition?

AH: The Syrian regime was for decades the main power broker in Lebanon. It started with military means then extended to politics through intimidation, assassination, imprisonment and repression. With the Lebanese state weakening and the social fabric desegregating, sectarian divisions and mistrust became stronger. The Syrian regime was very successful in this game, to the point that nowadays sectarian mistrust may occasionally appear stronger than national solidarity.

SGV: Is it in Lebanon’s best interest for Assad to remain in power, or would it be better under a new leadership?

AH: The departure of Assad’s dictatorship would be good for Syrian people, as well as for the Lebanese.

SGV: Hezbollah is a Lebanese militia which effectively controls southern Lebanon as a “state within a state.” Are they a stabilizing and progressive presence in Lebanon or is it time for the Lebanese government to reassess its position?

AH: Now Hezbollah has extended its control to the Lebanese government and gradually to all state institutions, benefiting from its military supremacy, while all other Lebanese parties are unarmed. No one would oppose this influence if it was legitimate and obtained only by democratic means. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Another more serious dimension is the loyalty of Hezbollah to Iran’s religious leadership, which appears to be – in the eyes of other Lebanese – a stronger tie than the Lebanese national bond.

SGV: Finally, what role, if any, should France or the United States play in helping prevent further chaos and instability in Lebanon?

AH: The international community has the obligation and responsibility to help Lebanon defend itself from political assassinations that plagued the country for the last thirty years, prevent a possible spill-over of violence and civil war from Syria, and the possibility of Lebanon becoming a theater for a regional war between Iran and its adversaries. In the short run, the current pro-Iranian government is not fit for the job.

Lebanese should be encouraged and helped to form a more neutral or better balanced cabinet than the current one.  What is also needed is strong support for the Lebanese Armed Forces to prevent movements of weapons and gunmen from and to Lebanon across the Syrian border, as well as support for the security and judiciary services conducting investigations into the political assassinations and terrorist attacks.

SGV: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.