I’m in Beirut for a few weeks this month, seeing family and attending weddings. The mood is eerily pleasant, though now that the Eid has passed everyone seems to be bracing themselves for the return to arms.
I caught up with my friend Abbas yesterday. Some of you may remember him from his appearances in the Conspiracy Chronicles series a few years ago. Abbas is in his forties and lives in Beirut with his wife and kids, where he works as a driver and bodyguard for a Lebanese businessman. He’s an ardent supporter of Hizbullah and grew up in South Lebanon under the boot of the SLA.
One of the last times we saw each other, we’d discussed the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, and Abbas had scoffed at the notion that Bashar al-Assad could possibly be serious about cutting a deal. “You’re going to tell me that an Alawite dictator is going to put his eggs in a Zionist basket and abandon the most popular political movement in the Arab world? For what? “Peace?” He won’t last a year,” he laughed.
When we sat down yesterday to chat, I asked Abbas what he thought of the situation in Syria and its reverberation on the Lebanese domestic scene. Here are some paraphrased highlights from our conversation.
So what do you think of the war in Syria?
It’s not going to end anytime soon. Everyone has shown their cards – the regime, the Arabs, the Europeans, the Americans, the Iranians – and they’re in it for the duration. Everybody’s all in. The Americans thought that Bashar would fall in a couple months and they were mistaken. Everywhere else in the region, the Americans were playing on their own playgrounds. In Egypt and Tunisia, they simply asked the army to step aside and the regimes crumbled. They couldn’t do that in Syria because Syria is not their playground. Al-Assad has his own army, and it’s a true army that won’t be pushed around.
They seem to be having trouble putting down the revolt though, don’t you think?
Assad’s mistake was that he didn’t act decisively enough. His father faced similar opposition in the 1980s and he was able to put it down in a few weeks. Bashar should have finished it off when he could have (kan lazim ya7simha). Instead, he gave the Saudis and Qataris an opportunity to pour fighters into Syria, and so now we have a full war.
Which is why Hizbullah got involved in al-Qusayr?
The Syrians don’t have experience with this kind of warfare. And actually, Hizbullah was also surprised by the tactics of the Nusra fighters. The Resistance lost a lot of men in al-Qusayr, but they were mostly killed at the beginning of the battle. The Hizb had taught its methods to Hamas who in turn taught them to the rebels. So for the first phase of the battle, the commanders had to study what was happening on the field and change tactics. They were up against larger numbers and a foe that was entrenched. By all accounts, the rebels should have won the battle, but the Hizb analyzed the situation rationally and figured out how to defeat them. In a fight, you have to use your brain, not just your muscles. Israel’s muscles are much larger than ours. But we’re smarter. This is the reason for the success of the Resistance.
But don’t you feel that the involvement of Hizbullah in Syria has had negative repercussions on Lebanon? The Sunni community is seething after all…
This is a matter of priorities. Our priority is the security of Lebanon. When the survival of our country is at stake, we can’t pay attention to what people on the street say. They don’t like it? That’s fine. We’re not trying to win a popularity contest. We’re defending Lebanon.
If the building next door to you is burning, you can’t wait for it to reach your house before you pull out a fire extinguisher. You have to go outside and put out the flames.
I don’t think that the boys in Tripoli see it that way.
That’s fine. If they have a different reading of the situation, let them pick up their rifles and go to Syria to fight. We’re fighting for what we believe in, and we believe that Lebanon will be in grave danger if it falls into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. These people cannot coexist with anyone, not even other Sunnis, let alone Christians, Druzes, and Shi`a. They’re even fighting other extremist Sunni groups in the opposition. If Syria falls to them, then Al-Qaida will have a base on the Mediterranean Sea. For some reason, the Americans and the Europeans are ok with this, but they call Hizbullah a terrorist organization for defending our country.
Jabhat al-Nusra is on the terror list, though. And the Americans have refrained from sending them weapons.
But they’re letting the Qataris and Saudis arm them to the teeth! I don’t understand US policy anymore. Do you? (Abbas became genuinely puzzled at this point) How do you explain their policy in Syria? Why would they be supporting Al-Qaida?
I think the Obama administration is looking for ways to not be involved. They’re doing just enough to cover themselves domestically while washing their hands of the conflict. This has opened space for their Arab allies to pursue Assad with a vengeance. What do you think the long-term scenario is?
There’s been too much blood for a return to the way it was before 2011. I can only see partition as a solution. Syria will have to be divided.
You mean an Alawite state and a Sunni state?
No, I think there will be a statelet for the radical Sunnis and then a state for everyone else. It’s either that, or they come to Lebanon.
That’s what we’re fighting against, habibi. It’s the only way. There can be no co-existence with these types of people. They call anyone who doesn’t think like them a heretic. They go into villages and massacre people because of their religion. They chop off the heads of their enemies and desecrate their graves. And the West embraces these terrorists while attacking Hizbullah, which didn’t raise a finger against its enemies in the South Lebanon Army after the Day of Liberation in 2000. The only way to deal with these terrorists is to kill them.
In the meantime… Lebanon? Government formation? What do you think?
Lebanon’s in the freezer. Nothing will happen here until someone wins in Syria. Our fates are intertwined. Neither side in Lebanon has enough strength to push through what they’d like, so we’re just going to have to wait.
What’s up with the souring relationship between Hizbullah and Aoun?
It’s fine. We disagree on a few domestic issues. Aoun wanted to hold elections and we felt that the time was not right. He felt that he could win a few seats at Geagea’s expense, but he wasn’t paying attention to the big picture. How could anyone secure a ballot box in Saida or Tripoli under the current conditions? Aoun’s problem is that he’s interested in scoring political points against his Christian rivals. But when you’re in politics you have to take the larger picture into consideration.
When the time comes, what kind of electoral law will be passed?
I don’t know. Our big problem in this country is that the political class is happy with the status quo and they depend on the majoritarian law to stay in power. What we need is proportional representation. Only under those circumstances will challengers to the existing leaders come about. Every sect, even the Shi`a, will see new people elected. This is why the politicians don’t want it. And even the Christians couldn’t agree on a law that served their purposes. So how do you expect anything to happen in Lebanon until Syria is settled?
People are saying that Hizbullah acted against al-Assir in Abra, but the Lebanese Army denied it. What do you think?
Of course they acted. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Why should anyone be ashamed of admitting that they fought alongside the army to protect their country? I think Hizbullah should not be ashamed of stating this openly.
Obviously they felt that it would inflame sectarian tensions.
The sectarian tensions have been stoked by Sunni leaders, not by Hizbullah. Al-Assir was an idiot, but he was only the tip of the spear. All across the country, there are militias being formed and armed by the Saudis. Al-Assir was meant to just be the match that lit the powder keg. Fortunately, the Army – with the help of the Resistance – was able to defeat this plan.
I hear that Hamas is trying to quietly repair its relations with Hizbullah.
That’s probably true. And unfortunately, the Hizb will likely go along with it. I think that we’re too principled when it comes to Palestine. We need to be more tactical.
Why would you make amends with someone who betrays you? They’ll only do it again.