Lebanon’s Battle for Independence

An interview with Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s new prime minister (THE WASHINGTON POST, 24/04/06):

Lebanon’s new prime minister, Fouad Siniora, visited President Bush last week as Lebanon struggles to emerge as a free and democratic country. Although Syria has withdrawn its troops from Lebanon, it has not given up the battle to influence the country through the intelligence agents it left behind. Last week Newsweek-Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth talked with Siniora in New York. Excerpts:

Q: The pro-Syria, anti-freedom forces are much stronger now than they were last spring before the election. Why?

A: They are reorganizing their groups to attack the government and to stop the majority from achieving the change that is required.

What did you ask President Bush for during your talks?

I came to ask President Bush three specific things. [First] to help Lebanon achieve the full integrity of all its territories and the withdrawal of Israel from the remaining part of Lebanon which is still occupied by Israel, the Sheba Farms.

According to the U.N. secretary general, Israel fully withdrew from Lebanon and Sheba Farms was left as Israeli-occupied Syrian land.

Sheba Farms is Lebanese.

What’s number two?

Number two is to empower the Lebanese government in terms of enhancing the capabilities of Lebanese internal security forces and army by providing equipment and training.

And the president said?

Yes. We will be sending some ministers to the U.S. to discuss this.

And number three?

To empower the Lebanese government economically. [I would like] the U.S. government to participate actively in the convening of an international conference [in] support of Lebanon.

Did the U.S. ask you to implement your economic reform program before the conference is convened?

Let me put it this way — as far as my request for Sheba Farms, the president and his aides showed great support, but they did not really commit themselves. In terms of assistance [for the army and security forces], this is going on full blast. As for my third request, empowering the government economically, this is something the U.S. has shown great enthusiasm for. . . .

In order to have a free Lebanon, don’t you have to get a new president, and how are you going to do that?

The term of the president is six years. In order to extend the term of President [Emile] Lahoud, which happened when the Syrians were in charge, the constitution was amended . . . I would recommend for the president to resign. If it happens, it will open new horizons for the country.

Who can disarm Hezbollah as required by the U.N. resolution?

If the U.S. and friendly countries help us achieve the withdrawal of Israel from Sheba Farms, this would make it possible for the Lebanese forces to be the sole owner of weapons and arms in the country.

Why will Hezbollah give up their weapons? Didn’t they threaten you and tell you not to come here?

They didn’t threaten me, though some of them said I should not come.

How can you have one party that bears arms?

Lebanon is not like any other democracy. Lebanon is composed of 18 confessional groups. We cannot achieve change except through dialogue and understanding of each other.

So, is Hezbollah controlled by Iran and Syria?

Hezbollah has great affiliation with Syria as well as Iran. But also Hezbollah expresses frequently that it is a Lebanese party . . . Hezbollah has several objectives that I subscribe to.

What are those?

That Israel still keeps a number of Lebanese detainees.

Are these terrorists who have killed Israelis?

They were killed and they killed — but this is a war. Not civilians — they killed [Israeli] army members. We subscribe to Hezbollah’s demands: release the detainees and ask the Israelis to provide us with the maps of the land mines that they planted in Lebanon, stop the aerial and sea violation of our airspace and waters.

Would you talk to Israel directly about this?

No. We do not have any diplomatic relations with Israel.

Why don’t you normalize relations with Israel?

We will upon the finalization of the peace process.

Didn’t Hezbollah kidnap three Israeli soldiers in [the] year 2000?

Didn’t Israel kill tens of thousands of civilians?

Do you think that the Syrians have threatened Lahoud? Could he quit, or would they kill him?

I think, personally, he is not the type to do that.

Could he do it?

I tend to think no.

They would kill him?

I don’t want to use that term. He is not free to resign.

How strong is Syria’s influence in Lebanon today, and how difficult is this for you?

Syria has its men and people in the country — supporters, some politicians and quite a number of Syrian intelligence agents. They are effective.

Weren’t they behind the killings of the journalists and politicians?

There is a wide perception in the country [to that effect], but I don’t have any smoking gun.

You have been hoping to exchange ambassadors with Syria and to demarcate the Lebanese-Syrian boundary but Syria . . .

. . . is delaying that. I am stating my demands in front of the U.N., and I am hoping that the Syrians will do this. We are neighbors with Syria and want to do this in a very friendly manner.

Did the opposition forces come to believe recently that the U.S. had forgotten about Lebanon?

The trip was really intended to send a message that the United States is still committed to Lebanon and that was made clear throughout all the meetings. The U.S. expressed commitment for the territorial integrity of the country and the hope that it would become a beacon of democracy and freedom.