Lebanese Interior Minister on the Syrian Conflict
Marwan Charbel discusses Syrian conflict and how this has spilled over into Lebanon
Riyadh, Asharq AL-Awsat—In an in-depth interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel spoke about some of the socio-economic factors affecting the political scene in Lebanon today. He stated that, despite the government’s policy of ‘dissociation’ from the Syrian conflict, the country is finding itself increasingly involved.
Aspects of the civil war have penetrated Lebanese politics, in addition to raising domestic security concerns, while Charbel fears these could continue even after the crisis ends. He stressed that he wants Beirut to remain impartial and independent from the war taking place across its border.
Charbel is a retired Lebanese brigadier general, having previously served in Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces. He was appointed Lebanon’s Interior Minister in June 2011 as part of the cabinet led by prime minister Najib Mikati.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let us begin with Syria. The Lebanese people have largely divided over Syria, how is this affecting Lebanon?
Marwan Charbel: The Lebanese government took the decision to dissociate itself from what is happening in Syria and it advised political figures to take this stance into consideration. We, as Lebanese, should not help either side. In my opinion, there will be no end in Syria without dialogue. Regardless of whether the regime stays or goes, we Lebanese have no interest except to maintain good relations with everyone
Q: But are the Lebanese people actually taking this advice and not getting involved in what is happening in Syria? What is the reality of the situation?
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is very different. The Lebanese are totally absorbed in the situation in Syria.
Q: What about the Syrian refugees?
We now have a very large numbers of refugees, which poses a threat to security, as well as social and economic issues. The Lebanese state does not have the capability to help one million people, and so far we have not received anything that was approved in Kuwait from the donor states.
Q: Skirmishes have erupted sporadically between Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition in the border region of Al-Qusayr. Is this also consistent with your policy of “disassociation”?
I do not approve of any Lebanese interference in political or military affairs in Syria, as it will have a negative impact on us. Everyone is remiss in this aspect. As for talking about the presence of Hezbollah in Syria, I do not have information on this. And that is not an evasion.
Q: Isn’t it true that the rebels have captured Hezbollah prisoners in Syria?
A group that went to worship was abducted, and is currently in A’zaz. We are now negotiating with the opposition. In return for the release of this group, they are demanding the release of a list of people held by the Syrian regime. Unfortunately, the group held captive is not related to anything. They had left for Iraq to perform the pilgrimage and were abducted with their spouses on their return.
Q: What do you think of the comments by Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qasim, claiming that the Syrian crisis cannot be solved except through Bashar Al-Assad?
There is also another side that supports the Syrian revolution. This is what I meant when I said that all the sides should not interfere by making statements. We should allow the Syrians to solve this matter themselves so that, in the end, we can maintain an excellent relationship with all. Why should we differ with each other for the sake of another country? This merely arouses fears about the repercussions of the Syrian crisis within Lebanon. My concern is that our problems will start once the Syrian crisis ends, because one side defeated the other.
Q: Did you meet with Hezbollah leadership and discuss the issue of non-interference?
I meet with all the Lebanese groups as I do not fear talking to any side. The media outlets constantly carry my remarks, and I speak openly in order to convince all the sides.
Q: Do you expect any security repercussions in Lebanon should the Syrian regime fall?
Our greatest concern at this time is that of repercussions to Lebanese security. We are also apprehensive about Syrian immigration, which now totals a quarter of Lebanon’s population. We must bear in mind that some of them will remain in Lebanon in order to evade the future Syrian government.
Q: What about Lebanon’s security?
It is up to the politicians to understand the transformations.
Q: This may be what you hope for, but what is your pragmatic assessment?
Yes, these are wishes and they are not being realized. That is why the politicians should understand the inherent dangers in this situation.
Q: Regarding Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir, some people believe that you took a firm and harsh decision against him, while you failed to deal with the other side in the same manner. What is your view?
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir lost his way when he promoted sectarianism in Lebanon through his speeches. I believe that the problem lies in his rhetoric rather than simply his presence or himself as a person.
Q: What about the various other sides in Lebanon that carry arms?
That is true; there are weapons in every single house in Lebanon. What can we say about what is happening in Tripoli? A total of 75 people were killed. Ideally, weapons should only be in the hands of the interior ministry, and this is what I am presently trying to achieve.
Q: How will you achieve this?
We will not be able to take any steps now until the situation in Syria ends. When it does, we will all gather around the negotiation table, as the president pledged. I do not know the reasons why some boycotted the dialogue, but we will wait and see how it pans out. This is in addition to the defense strategy represented in Hezbollah’s weapons.
Q: Do you think that it would be easier to discuss the issue of weapons in Lebanon after the Syrian regime falls?
I believe everyone will be convinced that there is no alternative to the state’s control of arms.
Q: Have you received any information about Lebanese nationals joining the Free Syrian Army (FSA)?
We have the names of Lebanese who are helping the Syrians.
Q: Which side are they helping, the regime or the opposition?
Neither side has been informative of their involvement, whether it is merely communication, humanitarian issues, or supplying arms.
Q: We have seen Lebanese officials resorting to pitting Lebanese groups against each other. Are you taking measures to prevent them from making such provocative statements to local media outlets?
This is the first time we are seeing chaos and war in Syria. Lebanon has always been affected by the economic and security situation in Syria. Given the nature of the proximity of the two nations, this is only natural. Therefore, it is essential that the future Syrian regime cooperates with Lebanon to allow for a secure economy, society and territory, regardless of anything else.
Q: After the fall of the regime, will Lebanon be allowed to enjoy the independence that it aspires to?
In our opinion, we should insist on independence. Lebanese decisions should emanate from the convictions of the Lebanese, not be subject to external dictates. Perhaps this is what is delaying economic growth and a stable security. It is high time we understand this: we should not allow others to interfere in our affairs. We should achieve freedom, sovereignty, and independence. I believe that we have the ability to do so.
Q: What about the security of the Palestinian refugee camps?
This is a major problem that we are suffering from. However, on the whole, it is under control.
Q: Will this be affected by the events unfolding in Syria?
Some simple moves are being made by supporters and opponents of the regime. However, this has not created a problem on Lebanese soil. The clashes taking place here are related to influence inside the camps.
Q: What is the latest regarding the cases of Wissam Al-Eid and the assassination of Wissam Al-Hasan?
This criminal act is being investigated; there is a big difficulty in reaching those that are involved. The Lebanese judiciary has some information in which I cannot interfere. My hope is that nobody will interfere so that the judiciary can play its role.
Q: What are the latest indications that you have reached?
We successfully identified the car, along with its location. So far, however, we have not reached more specific information. The judiciary has details that cannot be discussed.
Q: Are you sure the results of the investigations are not being delayed?
There is no delay, as the judiciary has not issued its final findings. There are suspicions, but they have reached the level of certainty.
Q: What do you think of the public prosecution’s decision?
I prefer not to interfere in the judicial decision; it is not yet final. I only look at the decision of the appellate court.
Q: What if the court of appeals ratifies the death sentence?
The death sentence will be carried out.
Q: What will be the repercussions of this on Lebanon as a whole?
There is some vagueness on this subject; he may be proven innocent as there are other clues and evidence that may indicate that he was only involved in carrying the arms and explosives. In the Lebanese law, this would result in a three to four year prison sentence. He may serve this sentence and then leave. We have to wait and see.
Q: How do you explain the infiltration of Lebanon, especially since the assassination also involved Michel Samahah, a former minister in the Lebanese government?
Certain prohibited items were found in his car and the investigation will only show the identity of those involved. However, the information I have is that he withdrew his testimony at one point in the investigation. We should therefore let the judiciary decide on this issue without interference.
Q: What about the demand made by Riyad Abu-Ghayda, the first military prosecution judge in Lebanon, for the death sentence against former Lebanese minister Michel Samahah and Ali Mamluk, the Syrian security official, who are accused of transporting explosives from Syria to Lebanon?
The judiciary has notified the Syrian side. However, it is mostly a matter of procedure. According to our law, if the notification cannot be sent, it should be posted on the door of the court of law. That is why this issue may be contested. The Lebanese judiciary will decide whether these notifications are legal or not. If the notification is illegal, the trial cannot be held.
Q: You have recently drafted a document to avert sectarian division in Lebanon, warning that such a division would “destroy the country”.
There are 18 religious sects and denominations in Lebanon. It is okay if they differ in policies, but it is impermissible for them to carry arms. The issue requires an element of education and awareness.
Q: What is the status of your demands regarding this document?
I say what, in my opinion, is for the good of the country, regardless of whether others accept it or not. The country can only be built on truth. It is true that I have called for a code of honor that does not differ for political or sectarian reasons. Unfortunately, however, some insist on their own attitudes. Nevertheless, there is an implicit response, but it is difficult to succeed in this matter in view of the current circumstances. What I did was present an opportunity, and after the crisis ends we may be able to turn it into a reality.
Q: How do you perform your political and security work without any bias in terms of political affiliation? Does your political affiliation influence your performance in the ministry?
Since the days when I was an officer, I have been independent of any sect or party affiliation.
Q: But some people feel that you sympathize with certain movements and parties.
People know that I represent everyone, whether they are Michel Aon, the Future Movement, or Hezbollah. However, I do not accept any order that may harm the security of the state.
Q: Isn’t it difficult to maintain such impartiality, particularly as the scene in Lebanon today is so politicized?
Yes, it is hard, but at least they are hearing a voice that is critical of everyone and supports correct decisions, regardless of their source.
Q: Some people claim that Lebanon’s official security agency is absent from areas under Hezbollah-control. Is this true?
I am telling you that, for the first time, Hezbollah—more than any other side—wants the security bodies to be present in its areas because any security disruption will impact negatively on them. We constantly discuss this issue with them. I have full confident in telling you that the Lebanese security officials are present in Hezbollah’s areas in Al-Dahiyah al-Junubiyah and are performing their tasks there.
Q: You had taken a decision in the past regarding the disarming of the tribes. However, this has not been achieved. Why is that?
There is no house in Lebanon without weapons. The state should achieve such disarmament through dialogue and concurrence, not forcibly impose this.
Q: What about the image of the security organizations?
Lebanon is going through very difficult circumstances due to the events in Syria. This has impacted on Lebanon. We cannot find a quick solution in a climate of security and sectarian division.
Q: Saudi Arabia has fallen victim to drug smuggling operations, particularly Captagon pills. Reports indicate that this drug originates in Lebanon and is being smuggled into Saudi Arabia via Syria. What do you think?
Why should we accuse specific countries? Drugs reach us from Latin America and Europe. There are many smuggling methods; drug smuggling has become a trade almost identical to arms trafficking. There are smugglers who are always ready to exploit the deteriorating security conditions. It is true that Captagon pills are being seized in Lebanon; however, they come from abroad and are distributed in many countries. The same applies to Syria. Drug traffickers constitute an uninterrupted circle. We are now taking security measures to seize illegal substances. We are trying to limit the drugs trade and the cultivation of hashish, but it is difficult to control because the borders are wide open.
Q: What figures in the Syrian regime you in communication with?
Communication is achieved through the foreign ministry and the Syrian state. We should not forget the fact that Syria is still present in the United Nations. Dialogue between the two countries is continuous, and Syria’s representative in the United Nations is present. However, I have not discussed security matters with them; the communication is through their ambassador here.
Q: What about the call from the mufti of Syria for jihad against anyone that fights against the Syrian regime? How is this going to impact Lebanon?
This will not affect Lebanon; there has been no impact since this call was made.
Q: In your opinion, will this call not push Hezbollah to take some action in Lebanon?
As I told you, there are Lebanese who seek to help the regime in way one or another, and others who support the opposition. The problem is that all of them have been negligent. We must remain immune and isolated from this conflict, and should not forget that relations between Syria and Lebanon have caused various problems in the past. This raises concerns about war breaking out. While I believe that this is unlikely, there remains fears and concerns to which we should be vigilant.
Q: How do you explain the remarks made by Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour of the Shi’ite Amal Party in which he refused to grant the FSA a seat in the Arab League—thus breaching the policy of dissociation?
I talked to him and he asserted that his words had been misinterpreted. He intended to invite all parties of the Syrian conflict to dialogue in order to end the crisis. This cannot be achieved by suspending the membership of the Syrian regime in the Arab League; and the American government recently called for the same thing. I assure you that the Lebanese foreign minister’s remarks were meant only to facilitate dialogue.
Q: How would you describe recent Saudi-Lebanese relations?
Our relations are excellent; they go back to hundreds of years, and are not affected by a statement here or a statement there.