Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria

A Response to Imad Moustapha

The indefatigable Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, over at Syria Comment, has published an exclusive interview with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States. The interview consists of questions submitted by various Syria Comment regulars, and to his considerable credit, the ambassador agreed to field them in a two-part series. Part One covers the topics of the Israeli peace talks, Lebanon/Hizbullah, and Palestine.

On the whole, I must say that I find Imad Moustapha to be a skilled ambassador, one who represented his country during a very difficult period and did a competent job, considering the many closed doors that he probably faced in Washington. Most of his responses are worth reading for their directness. The only part of the interview that irked me was Ambassador Moustapha’s response to question #8:

Question: Many Lebanese who listen to Mr. Nasrallah’s speeches are worried that Hizbollah does not want to stop fighting Israel until Israel is wiped off the map of the Middle East. Can you reassure them that their country will not necessarily continue to be paying the heavy price for its “resistance culture” after Syria signs a peace treaty with Israel?

Imad Moustapha: If certain speeches by Mr. Nasrallah have worried some Lebanese, they should address their concerns directly to the leader of Hezbollah. Asking a Syrian official to ‘reassure’ them regarding the Lebanese resistance reflects a profound and disturbing refusal to come to terms with the fact that Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Lebanese political and social fabric. The notion that Hezbollah gets its orders from outside Lebanon is both absurd and counterproductive. Those in Lebanon who have a problem with the “resistance culture” should understand that it grew out of a purely Lebanese context. I find it embarrassing that I need to explain to anybody in the world, let alone to Lebanese individuals, that this culture evolved as a result of decades of continuous and extreme Israeli violence committed on Lebanon.

By insisting on perpetuating this remarkable state of denial, those who refuse to accept that Hezbollah is a partner in what they consider ‘their’ Lebanon, will do themselves and ‘their’ Lebanon a great disservice…

Methinks the ambassador doth protest too much.

If one wanted an example of why so many Lebanese think bitterly of the Syrian regime, one would have to look no further than this statement. Of course, there are more varieties of Lebanese arrogance and chauvinism towards Syria than one can shake a stick at, but most of these are well-known and are anyhow not the fault of Syria or its government. What I am referring to is this brand of patronizing revisionist historiography that is routinely expressed by Syrian officialdom.

How cynical and insincere it is of Ambassador Moustapha to speak about Arab unity in one breath, while wiping Syria’s hands of Hizbullah in the next. Nowhere in the question is it stated that Hizbullah “gets its orders from outside Lebanon,” and yet the Ambassador cannot wait to invoke this point as a straw man to knock down. Furthermore, the notion that the Lebanese resistance “grew out of a purely Lebanese context” is, once again, completely out of touch with the vocabulary of Arab nationalism. (I don’t think even Hizbullah defines its identity and its strategic goals so narrowly.) This blatant flip-flopping between the valorization of regional and local identities to score a cynical political point only serves to divest the entire interview of seriousness.

Ambassador Moustapha may “find it embarrassing” to explain to the well-informed and intelligent readers of Syria Comment that the resistance evolved as a product of Israeli violence upon Lebanon. For my part — if I may speak on behalf of at least some of those readers — I find his feigned embarrassment to be unconvincing and a little bit comical. How simple it would have been for him to utter a more banal and politic response, something along the lines of: “It is not within Syria’s capabilities to guarantee when or if Israel’s vicious aggressions upon Lebanon will ever abate; this is in the hands of Israel itself, and it is Israel who bears the moral responsibilty for its crimes. Similarly, we cannot speak for Hizbullah, which is the Lebanese party that has sacrificed the most for the defense of its cherished homeland, etc.”

Instead of contenting himself with this standard brand of diplomatic filibuster, Ambassador Moustapha went out of his way to ensure that his retorts contained a moralizing and insulting rebuke to his readers. At a time like the present, when Syrian-Lebanese animosities are finally beginning to abate (thankfully!) the tone of this interview seemed rather out of place.

Discussion

28 thoughts on “A Response to Imad Moustapha

  1. QN,

    Forgive me if I sound oversimplistic or insensitive here, but isn’t Imad Moustapha’s response precisely what Lebanon would have wanted to hear all those years? What I mean is, that the Lebanese have understandably blamed the Syrians for eons for interfering in their internal affairs, yet now you’re angry that the top Syrian diplomat in the U.S. is trying to wipe his hands off any responsibility for Lebanese affairs?

    I understand of course that there is still a very complex relationship between Syria and Hezbollah, and one which cannot be described in detail by Ambassador Moustapha. And I also understand the tone that may sound like “Well, HA is YOUR creation, so YOU deal with it…” But what would you rather have – a Syrian diplomat saying “Well, yes, we’ll have to see what we do with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Syrian leadership will discuss the matter with the Sayyed, and then we’ll “coordinate” it all with the Lebanese government…”? Wouldn’t that infuriate the ordinary Lebanese tenfold?

    I guess, in my own insensitive way, I was rather positively surprised to hear his response to that question, in the manner that he chose. He seemed to be pointing more at the future, and at how Syria has accepted this future, than at the past.

    Posted by Shai | October 22, 2008, 8:20 am
  2. Sorry to say nabki but his answer is really good and to the point. For the simple reason that the way the question is framed is so stupid… Hizbullah is a “lebanese” actor whatever that means, and whatever it decides to do, it will do in reflection of its own ‘interests’ whatever that means.
    If war with Israel is an option than Hizbullah/Lebanese entity will resort to it. It does not take orders from anyone to do so, although this can play in the favor of other parties.
    there is so much to say here. I’ll write later.

    Posted by bech | October 22, 2008, 9:09 am
  3. Shai,

    Sure, his response is “precisely what Lebanon would have wanted to hear all those years”… if it were true! But it isn’t. He is basically saying that the Lebanese should grow up and stop complaining to Syria about Hizbullah because Syria has nothing to do with Hizbullah and has no influence over it.

    This is false. I understand the need to deny Syria’s “control” of Hizbullah (both because Syria does not control HA, and because Moustapha couldn’t say so even if Syria did), but to BOTH categorically deny it AND to imperiously tell his Lebanese readers that Hizbullah is purely a Lebanese actor over which Syria has no influence, is just silly.

    The question directed at Ambassador Moustapha was a very reasonable one: Given that Syria is negotiating with Israel right now, and given that one of Syria’s main cards is its influence with Hizbullah (note that I did NOT say “control over Hizbullah”), what can Lebanon expect in the way of a reorientation in the Hizb’s outlook, after a peace deal? In my humble opinion, Ambassador Moustapha could have found some way to answer that question without insulting his readers’ intelligence.

    Bech,

    I don’t understand the point you are making. Could you explain it again if you have the chance?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 22, 2008, 10:04 am
  4. QN,

    Yes, I understand your point now. But you must admit that posing a question like “… can you reassure them…” already implicitly puts Syria in a patronizing position, no matter what response is given? It’s a doomed-if-you-do and doomed-if-you-don’t scenario. You know I’m not exactly “overly fond” of Syria’s history in Lebanon, and particularly its influence (and control) over Hezbollah all these years. But the wording of the question was problematic, and Alex has noticed that in his comment on SC.

    I can see how Imad’s response would be insulting. But you and I both know that half of the answer could not be discussed openly. That was also part of the problem. Like Israel’s policy of ambiguity in regards to possible nuclear capabilities, Syria too has adopted ambiguity about supporting, influencing, or controlling Hezbollah, Hamas, or any other resistance group or nation against Israel. Oh well, let that be the only disappointment Lebanon faces from Syria this year… 😉

    Posted by Shai | October 22, 2008, 2:22 pm
  5. Shai,

    Yes, of course you are right. 🙂

    Maybe I was a bit hard on Ambassador Moustapha. If I were in his shoes, I probably would have simply dodged the question as I laid out above. Answering it as he did, in my opinion, only gives more ammunition to those in Israel who believe (like AIG for example) that Syria is merely playing the process and has no intention (or ability) to persuade its allies to agree to a settlement. As someone who would very much like to see these negotiations succeed, I regard these signals as missed opportunities. Then again, perhaps the negotiations are nowhere near the stage where positive signals from the Syrian ambassador would actually help things along…

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 22, 2008, 2:52 pm
  6. ok here it goes:

    Hizbullah is refashioning what “Lebanese” stands for. reframing what matters of State are. Hizbullah fought a resistance and won several battles against Israeli occupation/aggression/etc. As peace has not been signed, Lebanese State (confessionally fragmented)/Hizbullah decides on their priority facing Israel/Palestinian question/etc.

    If oustide parties (Iran, Syria) are profiting and aligned, even help Hizbullah, they in no way can order Hizbullah to do things, it’s just not logical. So in a way, what Moustapha says is kind of accurate.

    The question is badly stated? who the hell can stay what “the Lebanese” ask from Hizbullah? How do you set National priorities? Lebanon is badly divided, and whatever comes out as the official National agenda in terms of defense let’s say is bound to include Hizbullah’s point of view. So in a way, Hizbullah is a local player among others even if Hizbullah think he should liberate jerusalem ‘za7fan za7fan’.

    Posted by bech | October 22, 2008, 3:40 pm
  7. ok here it goes:

    Hizbullah is refashioning what “Lebanese” stands for. reframing what matters of State are. Hizbullah fought a resistance and won several battles against Israeli occupation/aggression/etc. As peace has not been signed, Lebanese State (confessionally fragmented) that includes Hizbullah decides on their priority facing Israel/Palestinian question/etc (especially those affecting “Lebanese” questions like Palestinian refugees etc).

    If outside parties (Iran, Syria) are profiting and aligned with Hizbullah, even help Hizbullah, they in no way can order Hizbullah to do things, it’s just not logical. So in a way, what Moustapha says is kind of accurate.

    The question is simply badly stated: who the hell can say what “the Lebanese” ask from Hizbullah? How do you set National priorities? Lebanon is badly divided, and whatever comes out as the official National agenda in terms of defense let’s say is bound to include Hizbullah’s point of view. So in a way, Hizbullah is a local player among others even if Hizbullah think he should liberate jerusalem ‘za7fan za7fan’.

    Posted by bech | October 22, 2008, 3:43 pm
  8. the second comment is an edited version of the first… but i rereading everything and it still not clear! ok will go sleep, and try something else tomorrow 🙂

    Posted by bech | October 22, 2008, 3:52 pm
  9. I haven’t read the interview in its entirety yet, but from this excerpt, it seems like what’s bothering you is tone rather than content. Fair enough.

    But I have to say that I kind of agree with the content of his answer, and I’m sure that Damascus is annoyed with the line that would have Hezbollah taking explicit marching orders from Syria or Iran. Especially since it’s likely that whatever influence Damascus had over Hezbollah decreased substantially after 2005.

    The relationship between Hezbollah and Syria is a very complex one, which I don’t think any of us can claim to fully understand. (Ditto, if not double, for Hezbollah and Iran.)

    While the question doesn’t explicitly state that Hezbollah gets orders from outside of Lebanon, that idea is certainly couched in the language chosen by the questioner. How could Damascus reassure anyone about anything concerning the behavior of Hezbollah, if there isn’t a hierarchical relationship between Syria and Hezbollah, in which the former influences the latter? I don’t think this necessarily has anything to do with Arab nationalism, but I’ll have to read the whole interview to understand the context of your response.

    Going back to Bech’s comment, I think I understand what he’s trying to say, and for once, I think I agree. In the current state of Lebanese political affairs, a common attack is to question the nationalist credentials of your opponent. Hezbollah calls Saniora a Mossad agent who gets his marching orders from Washington and Tel Aviv, and M14 says that Hezbollah is but a branch of the Revolutionary Guard that protects Iran’s interests first and foremost, answering only to Tehran.

    Both of these lines of reasoning are, to my mind, spurious, and I think that the concept of the loyal opposition is one that needs to be introduced to Lebanon. (Granted though, I can understand how it might be hard to think in these terms after the civil war when many parties did, in fact, receive explicit marching orders from other countries.)

    All of this to say that I can understand Moustapha’s frustration. But if what you’re disagreeing with is his tone, to my mind, that’s neither here nor there.

    Posted by sean | October 23, 2008, 3:37 am
  10. Dear Sean

    As far as ambassadorial statements go, tone is often enough all that one has to work with! So I think it is important.

    I also insist upon my reading of the question as not containing the insinuation that Hizbullah is controlled by Syria. You argue:

    How could Damascus reassure anyone about anything concerning the behavior of Hezbollah, if there isn’t a hierarchical relationship between Syria and Hezbollah, in which the former influences the latter?

    The key word is “influence”, not control. Let’s not kid ourselves: Syria’s card at the negotiating table is its influence with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran. Beyond this influence, Syria does not have much in the way of pressure to compel Israel to return the Golan.

    I agree entirely with your point about the concept of the loyal opposition. This is precisely why I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask a question like, “How will a peace settlement between Syria and Israel affect Syria’s closest allies?” It’s a simple question, to which few people have produced honest and realistic answers. It’s also a difficult question, which is why people prefer to pretend that it assumes that Syria controls Hizbullah. (This is what Ambassador Moustapha did).

    Now maybe he is not in a position to answer this question in any other way. But that does not mean that the content of his actual answer was essentially correct. I was merely pointing that out.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 23, 2008, 4:05 am
  11. A couple of quick observations:

    The ‘actual’ relationship between Syria and Hizbullah is not that complex no need for severe conceptual frameworks. Nobody dominates the other, both at the same time benefit and are dependent on each other in a way.

    I think people have a hard time understanding that Hizbullah has a very local political agenda (although regional player do benefit from this) that can be quite confrontational because it is held from a position of force. And when Hizbullah that confronts Israel for their own benefits, Syria and Iran passively watch jubilant at best extending weapons or facilitating conduit of things.

    In Lebanon everybody has his own brand of ‘nationalism’ the basic difference between Hizbullah and the other is that the former kicked the butt of their ‘enemy’ and while still enjoying fame, tries to get other impending files resolved. A confrontation with Israel may come, and one has to understand it through Hizbullah’s prism. Even the Syrian won’t be able to do anything about it. Syria since the death of Hafez is in ‘catching up mode’, it does not play a central role in ‘arab’ affairs, but still is trying to position itself while other player (Hizbullah, Hamas) are winning medals.

    So in this sense, the ambassador’s answer was basically backfiring at the prejudiced implicit claim hidden in the question that Hizbullah is controlled by Syria. A claim that extends the Lebanese paranoid position that ‘the outside’ is always controlling political quibbles ‘inside’.

    But all in all I don’t find really fascinating the answers of one guy at one question at one point in time, but I still don’t understand why nabki is shocked at his answer. You should still judge the guy across time and not with one vituperative answer.

    And Sean “For once”?! hahaha

    Posted by bech | October 23, 2008, 7:51 am
  12. QN: Obviously the relationship is one of influence rather than pure control, although there are many, in Lebanon and abroad, who insist on painting the relationship between Hezbollah and Syria/Iran as a caricature. (For the record, I don’t think you’re doing that here.)

    Otherwise, I don’t think that Syria’s card is necessarily influencing Hezbollah, and I don’t think that any realistic Israeli or American would expect that from Damascus. What Syria could offer, however, is neutrality, which would mean not facilitating Hezbollah’s actions, politically or materially. Iran, by the way, has made similar offers in regards to Palestinian affairs.

    I can see how you wouldn’t appreciate the tone of the answer, but I think you can probably also see how Moustapha might not like the undertones of the question. Because after all, the question that was asked is very different from asking how Lebanon would be affected by a Syrian peace deal with Israel. And by the by, I fully agree with you on that point, this is a very important question, and I haven’t really read any convincing answers yet.

    Bech: Hahah, I knew you’d get a kick out of that. And to be fair, we also seem to agree on the awesomeness of the newest Coen brothers film!

    Posted by sean | October 23, 2008, 8:47 am
  13. Sean,

    Thx for the response. The only thing I would say is that I wouldn’t call a policy of non-facilitation by Syria “neutral”! 🙂

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 23, 2008, 1:23 pm
  14. to the point Sean. we should watch more movies then!

    Posted by bech | October 23, 2008, 6:13 pm
  15. Ya QN:

    Why do i feel that you are flaying a dead horse here?

    I didnt send any questions to his eminence Mustafa ( which in classical Arabic means “The chosen One”) because lets face it -political rhetoric makes me want to puke!

    Now Mr QN:

    Lets not get into semantics here, you know those pesky Syrian brothers will cause trouble for us, and no matter how bumptious you get ( and lets face it us Lebanese if ever there was an apt description ) its not going to matter because we need further lessons in the resistance culture. A culture that we have bred (financed by our dearly beloved brothers next door and the great Iranians ).

    Let us not forget our place.

    Hows the weather in Beirut?

    Posted by Enlightened | October 24, 2008, 1:35 am
  16. lol Enlightened

    The weather is good though a bit rainy recently.

    Looking forward to your visit… next year?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 24, 2008, 6:59 am
  17. Frankly, if I were Lebanese, I would be on the edge of my seat. Lebanon was a cash cow for the Syrians and it looks like they will need the cow back very soon. With the price of oil as it is, Iranian monetary support will go down significantly. Loans are impossible to get. Real estate development is going down the tubes worldwide. The refineries and cement factories being built in Syria are white elephants now with the over capacity in the world. Syrian industry is not competitive. Tourism is going to slow down significantly. So what is left?

    Lebanon.

    Don’t worry QN, the Syrians on this blog and SC will explain to you why Syria had no choice but to do it. Make sure though that you have a contingency plan to get out quickly (your parents also). I estimate the takeover a few weeks after the inaguration of Obama.

    Posted by AIG | October 24, 2008, 4:47 pm
  18. Ya QN:

    Thats the plan, My brother in law is currently there, the next village above Bakhoun in the North- a very pretty place.

    Tells me that the North is a wasteland at the moment, so much despair and anarchy, it does not look good.

    Whats the mood on the street in Beirut? and the peoples fears/hopes regarding the elections next year?

    Posted by Enlightened | October 24, 2008, 7:08 pm
  19. Enlightened,

    The mood seems to be one of cautious optimism.

    I’m not one to make predictions, but I have a feeling that the current opposition will be in the majority next year, but not by a huge margin. It may be something like 68-60.

    This is healthy, in my opinion.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 26, 2008, 12:51 am
  20. AIG,

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll make sure my bags are packed.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 26, 2008, 12:53 am
  21. QN,

    Shall I pack my bags too? Just in case? 🙂

    Stay where you are. We’ll be fine.

    Posted by Shai | October 26, 2008, 4:36 pm
  22. Shai (and AIG)

    While we are talking about impending catastrophes, I think that far more likely is another war between Israel and Hizbullah.

    I’m sure you read all of the opinion pieces linked by Joshua in his latest News Update on Syria Comment. It seems that Hizbullah has massively re-armed and re-deployed north of the Litani, and that Israel is itching for a round 2.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 26, 2008, 4:53 pm
  23. QN,
    Another war is highly unlikely unless Israel starts one which I believe will not happen at least after the election, if at all. What can Israel gain from another round? What Israeli interest does it serve?

    Hizballah, if it is around after the next war, will have to rebuild and rearm again in a much tougher economic climate. They will not go to war.

    In times like these, people go for the low hanging fruit. That is why Syria getting back into Lebanon for economic reasons makes a lot of sense. It will be difficult to stop the Syrians from doing so because they know that no western country is going to go to war for Lebanon.

    Asad will try getting rid of the sanctions by negotiations. When he realizes that he can’t, he will take back Lebanon because there is nothing more he can lose. During the Bush period he was afraid of a US attack and forceful regime change. With Obama, he will not have such fear. Everything points to the Syrians getting back into Lebanon.

    Posted by AIG | October 26, 2008, 6:00 pm
  24. QN,

    I of course fully disagree with AIG. Syria will not reoccupy Lebanon, because it has no need to. Hezbollah is doing all Syria (and Iran) need for them already. Syria has achieved a lot lately, by getting many nations to see the foolishness of following Washington’s isolation policy. After getting closer to Europe and Russia and, soon quite possibly to a new U.S. administration, Syria will certainly not take a chance and reintroduce its troops into Lebanon. It will lose everything it achieved, in an instant.

    Plus, Syria knows that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are still there, waiting for Syria to make a mistake (especially with regards to Lebanon). Syria knows that Arab nations have gone to war against other Arab nations over such invasions (Syria itself, against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait), and it will not risk it. Assad has been playing his cards quite smartly in the past 8 years, and I doubt he’s about to gamble it all, even if Lebanon would have been “profitable” for him.

    Posted by Shai | October 27, 2008, 8:36 am
  25. Shai,

    I agree with you. Syria has never ‘invaded’ Lebanon. It has always entered Lebanon and controlled it with full diplomatic cover. For it to return in the same fashion, it would need the approval of the U.S., Europe, and the Arab World. That approval is not available these days.

    Plus, Syria has Lebanon right where it wants it these days. The anti-Syrian opposition has been neutered, Hizbullah is very powerful, and the opposition stands to possibly become a majority in the upcoming elections.

    To my mind, the threats are much more likely to come from the south than the north, at least in the near term.

    AIG, why does Israel not withdraw from Shebaa and Kfar Shuba? At that stage, Hizbullah will be satisfied that it had accomplished all of its liberation goals, and will more readily transition to being a national defense.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 27, 2008, 8:58 am
  26. QN,

    Though you asked this of AIG, I’d like to add my thoughts, and ask you what you think.

    The way I see Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, it is generated first and foremost from its unique ability (and record) in countering the aggressive Zionists. For all practical purposes, Hezbollah is the ONLY national guardian of Lebanon. But clearly its abilities are derived from its talented and devoted fighters, and the weapons it has in its arsenal. If it were to ever hand over control to anyone else (Lebanese Army, etc.) it would lose its uniqueness and, perhaps, a major part of its raison d’etre. It would become “just another party” in Lebanon, wouldn’t it? Even if it became, like Norman likes to call it, Lebanon’s “Golani Brigade” incorporated within the Army, it would still have to receive orders from somebody else. And I somehow don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    So while Shebaa farms and Kfar Shuba have yet to be “liberated”, or handed over, I can’t imagine Hezbollah would willingly undergo any major transition once these this topic was finished. They’ll continue resisting Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Golan, and Turkish spa resorts… (joke). But it’ll be a while before Hezbollah will change. Having said that, I see no reason for Israel to continue to hold on to any territory, and should immediately return these to Lebanon. Regardless of how soon, or how late, Hezbollah will disarm, there’s no doubt that the first step needs to be taken by Israel.

    Posted by Shai | October 27, 2008, 10:52 am
  27. QN,
    It is a simple economic question. Syria cannot make the same amount of money out of Lebanon unless it physically occupies and controls the money in the Lebanese banks.

    I think that economic necessity will lead Syria to take back Lebanon and it will trump all political considerations. Let us just wait and see. By the way, I hope the opposition wins power in Lebanon. It will be interesting to see how Hizballah will work with the US and Europe.

    As for withdrawing from Sheba and Kfar Shuba, I think the Lebanese and Israelis should sit together and reach an agreement. That is how things are done. If you can’t do that, you know who to complain to.

    Hizballah gets most of its money from Iran. To believe it has foremost Lebanese national interests at heart is naive.

    Posted by AIG | October 27, 2008, 2:03 pm

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