As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its lightning advance in Iraq and consolidates its strongholds in Syria, sparking fears of sectarian war across the region, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat about his take on the situation and how it could affect his country.
Asharq Al-Awsat met Bassil during his first official visit to London last week, during which he met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague to discuss a number of issues. Gebran is a member of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which forms part of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Following the recent developments in the region, with ISIS advancing in both Iraq and Syria, is Lebanon at risk? In your opinion, does this represent the end of the regional borders drawn up as part of the Sykes–Picot Agreement?
Gebran Bassil: There is a project to fragment the region into sectarian bodies, so it can become like the Jewish–Israeli entity. Some people’s interests would be served by moving the conflict from an Arab–Israeli [conflict] to an inter-Arab [one], specifically Sunni–Shi’ite and Muslim–Christian conflicts. Unfortunately, it seems that Israel and its Western backers will succeed in this, and the Arabs will move towards their own destruction.
But perhaps the most dangerous thing is that we are today facing a global civilizational struggle between dialogue and conflict. A dialogue of civilizations would create large entities where different people coexist, whereas a clash of civilizations would produce small entities, each divided along sectarian and regional lines. These conflicts and disintegrations have only just begun and do not have an end. This is a calculated and anticipated matter. The danger is that the leading and pioneering groups have mastered the process of violent fragmentation. This danger is real and present.
The groups that appear to be playing a leadership role are acting as if the people are satisfied by this, but in reality, anyone who knows the region knows that this is not true. What is happening is not based on what the people want; rather, the impotence of the Arab rulers and governments make these alternatives acceptable in the early stages. Later there will be a backlash and people will reject them and remove them from the equation, similar to what happened in Algeria in 1992, and in Egypt and Syria, and like what is happening now in Iraq. Unfortunately, time will cost us large political, financial, social and human losses, but ultimately the results will favor those who support dialogue in the region. In any case, these groups will not find themselves leading new national projects.
Some countries support this approach under the belief that they are helping Israel, or that regional fragmentation will make it easier [for them] to deal with the region and take advantage of its natural resources. But they do not know that this situation will create a domino effect that will eventually reach them as well. No country will be safe from this type of chain reaction: Turkey will not be safe, and after Turkey, Europe [will be threatened], particularly because Mediterranean Europe will affect the rest of the continent. For that reason, what is happening in Iraq is not surprising, but expected. What is surprising is the West’s slowness to react. Any measures taken today will be too late; however, the consequences would be even more disastrous if no steps were taken at all.
Q: You say that Israel and other countries are involved in this issue, but Arab states have also begun to get involved, and we cannot deny the role of Iran. Are sectarian wars being forced upon us without the option of returning to political solutions and regional agreements to avoid further fighting?
There is a need for better understanding in order to respond to these issues, which are widespread ideologically, intellectually and organizationally. The responses cannot be localized, either; in order to succeed they need to [take the form of] general responses. Dealing with only one issue at a time would make it impossible to address the larger issues and, naturally, problems would arise along the borders and in other countries. If we do not insist that there is a common solution with support from Arab states and the international community, then we will find ourselves in situations similar to what happened in Mali, Somalia, and Africa and North Africa; this partial approach will not work. Sadly, Arabs have the capacity to make a stand, and it is their responsibility. But the case could also go to the West as a result of Arab impotence, because this issue will also affect them.
However, if the Arabs wanted to [get involved], then of course they could. On the one hand they are oblivious, but if they were aware of what is happening, they would view it as a blow to Iran or Arab states or that it is part of some wider geopolitical gain. A partial thought process cannot bring about the comprehensive thinking [necessary] for confronting sectarian division.
Q: Lebanon has faced fundamentalist movements, and we have seen the security plan in Tripoli. Do you feel the security situation in Lebanon is under control?
Of course: first, because Lebanon’s land area is not large enough for such movements, so it is confined to individual cases. Second, because the Lebanese army still has the ability and . . . [is patriotic enough] to control this. Third, Lebanon has international support. These three elements are essential for peace and security, but in order to impose long-lasting justice in Lebanon we need to secure the areas around Lebanon. How can we protect Lebanon given the current situation and chaos in Syria? The Western and Arab approach to Syria is wrong; Iraq is proof of this. Were it not for the situation in Syria, would we be seeing what we are seeing in Iraq?
Q: You said that the Western and Arab approach to Syria is wrong, but what is the right approach, and is it possible to remain silent about what is happening?
Their approach is wrong because violence leads to more violence and prevents political alternatives. The other option is to allow the political process to continue without preconditions from either side. No one can say, ‘Do not allow this person into a position of authority,’ and no one can say that they will remain in power. This is for the Syrian people to decide, with international support. Whatever the Syrian people decide, that is their choice.
Q: Do you think the recent election represents the choice of the Syrian people? Were the Syrian people given freedom of choice here?
According to the government, yes; according to the opposition, no. The results of this process represent a large section of Syrians; how many exactly I cannot say. However, if there is mutual recognition, and if the process is comprehensive for all Syrians in all areas, and everyone is welcome to participate, then it can be given full legitimacy. Today, of course, it has gained legitimacy. But that is not enough so long as there is no international recognition or internal consensus. In other words, it is not enough, but it is better than nothing. This means that the Syrians would be able to hold an electoral process if they could reach an agreement. However, since they are [currently] fighting, it was conducted by one side only. So in this case, it is possible to hold an electoral process.
Q: But the reality is that the elections were not free?
It is possible to conduct an electoral process. The results are not accepted, because everyone wants to reject the outcome before the election has finished, and each party wants to impose its interests on the other.
Q: The process is possible, of course, but external factors are obstructing the political process. Is your policy as foreign minister of Lebanon one of “dissociation” from what is happening in the country, and particularly from the various political groups in Syria?
I do not like the term “dissociate.” The better expression would be “distancing” Lebanon from problems that will only be exacerbated by interference. Interfering in Syria’s affairs benefits neither Syria nor Lebanon. We must secure the interests of Lebanon as a whole while also helping other countries.
Do we interfere with the choice of the Syrian people? . . . No, we do not interfere. But what matters to us is [our] access to Syria, and its security. Without that, there is the possibility of dangerous groups emerging. In that regard, we are able to intervene positively. Even if it were justified, negative intervention in Syria would not help Lebanon with national consensus or preserving national unity. It might help one group in Lebanon, but it would not benefit the whole.
Q: Shall we just call a spade a spade: “Lebanese intervention”?
The situation is clear; Lebanese intervention in Syria takes several forms: political, fiscal and military. The situation is clear; everyone is intervening in Syria.
Q: What about Hezbollah’s physical intervention on the ground?
Hezbollah announced and took responsibility for its intervention, which was of a different form. Its intervention was direct and decisive in battles on the ground in Syria. It did not pass unnoticed, and was a major influence on the Syrian crisis.
But was it beneficial for Lebanon? In several respects, it was not helpful, but it was useful because of the absence of the Lebanese state in seizing terrorist elements that had attacked Lebanon. In this regard, it is important to have an army that addresses these national issues for all Lebanese citizens, rather than for a small section of them.
Q: What is happening in Syria has greatly affected Lebanon. In regards to the status of refugees, the international community gives financial assistance, but what is the solution to the growing refugee crisis?
The first solution is stopping the military crisis in Syria. Second, there needs to be true international, regional and Lebanese interest in helping the Syrians return, rather than in finding ways to integrate them into the communities they are in or trying to alleviate the burden on Syria. The inhuman crimes perpetrated in Syria cannot be absolved by improving the status of refugees. The wrongs that have been committed cannot be righted by humanitarian action for those displaced by the war. The root causes of the crisis must be confronted, and all of the repercussions must be treated until every problem in Lebanon is addressed.
The government has put together a plan to reduce the growing number of displaced persons by stopping the entry of any displaced person who does not have the official displaced status and does not come from an area of military conflict. Soon, through the adoption of international standards for displacement, those who do not merit the status of displaced person must be removed and returned to Syria. In the third stage, those Syrians who are not able to return must be provided security and accommodation along the Lebanese–Syrian border, or inside Syria, and the UN will also address their humanitarian needs under standards that no one is permitted to reject.
Q: Security for refugees inside Syrian territory is difficult, but what about those who have fled?
When inside Syria, their security is the responsibility of the Syrian state, or whatever group has control of that territory. For those who cannot return to Syria, because they are homeless or they are against the regime, or who do not want to return, then Lebanon provides them security at or along the border. There, the UN provides logistical assistance and security, along with Lebanon and Syria. This is not possible for someone to refuse, because the alternatives are unacceptable. Lebanon will never accept any [Syrian] refugee camp [in Lebanon], whether under the UN flag or another flag. We will not allow this.
Q: Let us move to another asset: oil and gas, which could change the Lebanese situation and solve many of its problems . . .
A: That is bigger than Lebanon. That asset is a large one, and the whole region, not just Lebanon, would benefit from it. Oil will be a stabilizing factor for the region, and will fulfill the needs of Arab and European countries. Its impact would serve to jump-start the political process in Lebanon, and we intend to pursue this with transparency, legality and good management of petroleum resources in order to prevent waste. We want to ensure all of the necessary conditions to extract it well, so that oil will be a source of prosperity for Lebanon and not an affliction as a result of poor administration.
Q: There are fears of regional struggles over oil . . .
I am not afraid. A situation that could precipitate struggles is also one that is able to prevent them. No one is able to intimidate us, and we have a right to threaten others if they threaten our oil, since there cannot be peace for anyone who puts Lebanon in a tumultuous position. Either we live in stability and peace in the entire oil-rich eastern region, or we live in anxiety. We have chosen stability and prosperity, and this is a catalyst for peace.
Q: But events in the region do not indicate that it is moving towards peace . . .
It does not matter. One essential factor for peace is that societies be prosperous. When you live in poverty, terrorism spreads. So there are factors that can help us towards [achieving] peace.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.