Michel Suleiman: Disengaging From All Conflicts
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman is pleased with the results of the latest round of national dialogue held on Monday. But key questions about the proliferation of weapons and implementing the Taif Agreement remain unresolved.
Nicolas Nassif (NN): The last round of the national dialogue created quite a stir. Some were happy with its results, while others played down its importance and did not find it ambitious enough. How do you evaluate what happened.
Michel Suleiman (MS): It is natural that an evaluation leads to varying opinions, since such an endeavor has political roots. Each side sees it from its own position and political aims. Personally, I am satisfied with Monday’s [June 11] meeting.
Although I had hoped [head of Lebanese Forces] Samir Geagea and [head of Future Movement] Saad Hariri would attend, they were both represented by participants.
The national dialogue roundtable is not based on voting, but on consensus. Nevertheless, the results of the first session were expected and they are positive.
NN: Where do you see the satisfactory results?
MS: The paramount problem we face today is the Syrian crisis. We were always hesitant about our position on the matter, neutrality or no neutrality, engagement or disengagement.
In the dialogue, we pushed for publicly disengaging Lebanon from regional and international conflicts. Since yesterday, the government should no longer be embarrassed about taking a position on Syria, as we agreed on disengagement. This is not only from Syria, but from any similar regional or international issue.
NN: But March 14 describes this disengagement as being from Iran and not only Syria.
MS: This is 100 percent correct. We decided to disengage from all conflicts and regional and international disputes, and to safeguard Lebanon from the negative repercussions of regional instability.
This is a very clear issue. When we were invited to the Friends of Syria conference in Turkey and France, we did not go. Instead, we said we were friends of all Syrians and do not support one side against the other, like the conference wants, therefore we declined the invitation.
When Iran called for a four-way conference to support Syria, we also told them we will not participate. Our position is disengagement from all alignments.
NN: In the Baabda Declaration, can the emphasis on the 1989 Taif agreement and implementing all its conditions be considered a reward for March 14 for their agreement on the Syrian issue, especially following Hassan Nasrallah’s call for a national constituent assembly?
MS: Hezbollah explained their position. They are not calling for a constituent assembly, but for finding ways to retrieve the state. Their position was misunderstood.
Others had similar positions, such as the Phalanges’ proposal for a national conference and the new social pact suggested by [Maronite] Patriarch Bishara Rai. They all express the desire to strengthen and reinforce the state and implement the constitution.
Therefore, I always called for the implementation of the Taif agreement and never to deviate from its spirit, in addition to fixing problems related to some constitutional powers. This should not mean the amendment of the Taif agreement, but to safeguard it and resolve the complications blocking its implementation.
When did the agreement begin to be executed properly? We started to apply it and the constitution, as Lebanese and with our own hands, in 2008. We have been facing problems ever since.
Let us continue the implementation to see if it needs a constituent or a national assembly, or if it only needs correct approach from politicians. I think we need the second option.
The Taif constitution is still valid and vital for Lebanon. It is appropriate for other countries that are plural and globalized. Many countries could use a similar constitution if they want to engage all the components of society in managing political affairs and organizing life under a democratic system. We should apply it in a sophisticated manner.
The agreement now has a Lebanese authority. It is a new experience marred with flaws due to the crises that have come to light, such as the financial crisis, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and other hefty files, not to mention the Arab Spring and the Syrian situation. We have not witnessed such a complicated situation in Syria since independence.
NN: Did the national dialogue roundtable disconnect the situation in Syria from Lebanon, in order to avoid the crisis spilling over due to both political sides’ intervention in the Syrian situation?
MS: If they did not disconnect, they would not have agreed on the final declaration. Is this enough? Of course not. The authorities and the state have to do the rest.
In all certainty, the participants in the dialogue represent around 97 to 98 percent of the Lebanese, if we leave out the independents. And those want the state more than anyone else. I do not know how many people do not support the declaration. Are they 1 or 2 percent? Barely.
We should establish the separation of the Syrian situation in Lebanon. Do Lebanese from either political side make a difference when they interfere in events there? Of course they do not, neither negatively nor positively.
NN: You insisted several times on following a policy of disengagement, and so did the government. But the Baabda Declaration was adopted in a different way, disengagement and rejection of the buffer zone and smuggling arms and fighters. Why are you sending the declaration to the United Nations and the Arab League?
MS: The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 [following the Israeli aggression in the summer of 2006] mentioned the issue of weapons in a number of places, especially smuggling arms into Lebanon and their proliferation.
Since our dialogue is mainly about weapons, it is necessary to say that we are are holding a dialogue and concur on ending the spread of chaos and the smuggling and collection of weapons.
This is an issue that concerns the United Nations, especially since the periodic report on 1701 is due next month. We want to say we are working towards the same goal.
Following the resolution, many international declarations mentioned that the question of arms is on the dialogue table and is being discussed inside the Lebanese state. This is why our declaration is connected to resolution 1701 and the United Nations.
Of course, the whole world is interested in the issue. Lately, we began hearing countries state their fears of the crisis spilling into Lebanon, as if we are under threat.
I had replied to the Syrian envoy to the UN Bashar Jaafari about this, as you know. I mentioned that Lebanon is carrying out a national dialogue and is fighting all manifestations of arms and weapons.
Other than sending it to the UN and the Arab League, what is most important about the declaration is that Lebanon is telling the world not to demand the creation of a buffer zone. I used to say this as president, so did the government, and we still do, but now we all say it.
It is important for the Arab League to know because the Lebanese in Doha had decided to continue with the national dialogue under their supervision. [Former Arab League chief] Amr Moussa even attended the first round of dialogue.
NN: Following Monday’s meeting, you will all go to another session on June 25. Some say they are waiting for the government to translate the final declaration into action and some say that the question of weapons will not be raised. What does the head of the state say?
MS: When I called for the dialogue, I set an agenda for discussing the defense strategy and the question of weapons from three sides: the resistance’s weapons, Palestinian weapons, and weapons in the cities.
I sent this agenda to all sides of the dialogue and invited them on this basis. Naturally, following the session on national principles and the general framework of the dialogue, we will proceed in the following sessions to approach the items of the agenda. I will definitely start with the question of weapons.
NN: March 14 did not give up easily on the Syrian issue, do you expect March 8, especially Hezbollah, to yield on the question of weapons?
MS: Everyone remembers what I said in the agenda. It was about the resistance’s weapons and how to utilize it positively to defend Lebanon. This was in addition to finding answers to the question of why, when, how, and where it can be used.
Hezbollah, the main stakeholder, did not even comment on the issue and accepted to participate on its basis. Hezbollah wants to discuss the issue and it is in its interest to do so and create the general framework for using and controlling the resistance’s weapons.
It is in the best interest of Hezbollah, first and foremost. Anyway, they did not object to the invitation.
NN: Will it be easy to confiscate weapons in the cities?
MS: Easy? No. It won't be easy. The Lebanese are used to having weapons. But we have to look for the means to collect such weapons if we are truly the people’s representatives. Is no one able to find a possible way to approach the disarmament of cities?
MPs and organizations from Tripoli had visited me and asked me to disarm the city. This was before the latest events. Beirut MPs also asked me to declare the city a demilitarized zone. Therefore, there is a possibility to find a solution to the issue.
NN: Is it a political decision for the different sides or a security decision in the hands of the army?
MS: It is a political decision, since the army should apply the political decision.
NN: What about the weapons in Palestinian training camps? This was decided in 2006 but was not applied.
MS: We have to apply this decision and it is necessary to do so. We will get into it in later sessions. It could be the first or second item in the next session, or later sessions. But we have to consider it with all seriousness so it can be applicable.
NN: In the last third of your term, how satisfied are you with what you accomplished?
MS: I am not satisfied with my accomplishments, but I am happy with what I did. Yes, satisfied with what I did, and not satisfied with the accomplishments that should have been much more than that.
I was aware of our new attempt to apply the Taif agreement without [Syrian] supervision or Israeli occupation. I used to be more optimistic even though I was aware of the scale, impact, and frequency of difficulties, which I had hoped would pass quickly. It was maybe also the circumstances surrounding the Lebanese issue.
But I hope to achieve the remaining accomplishments in the last third of my term. Why not? What remains does not need more than that, if the situation becomes ripe to apply them. But what is important is to continue.
We have put some issues on the right track. Can anyone after today ignore the disengagement of Lebanon enshrined in the Baabda Declaration? The same goes for the other files.
When we began the dialogue, it was about the defense strategy and not the resistance’s weapons. Now, there is only one item on the table. It is about the resistance’s weapons and the conditions of its use. This is an essential development. The same goes for the issue of the buffer zone.
We set rules to be followed. We will continue with the electoral law and administrative decentralization project in the cabinet, in addition to constitutional reforms that would allow the reinforcement of the Taif agreement.
We will propose them to the government and parliament. Even if they are late, they are already on their way.
NN: Are you worried about Syria?
MS: The fire is close to my house. It might reach me. Of course I am worried about Syria. Therefore, I hope the Syrians could make up their minds and decide on how to manage their affairs.
Of course, talk is easy and implementation is difficult. We had a similar experience. But they have to discuss with each other to reach a calm democratic transition.
In violence, we all lose. But a calm transition would save everyone’s dignity. There is plenty of foreign intervention, and I am against it. But this position is also difficult. Very difficult. God save us all.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.