October 22, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 891

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Comes Out Against Hizbullah And Its Weapons

October 22, 2012 | By E. B. Picali*
Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 891


In recent months there has been a further decline in Hizbullah's political and public standing in Lebanon, mainly due to its support of the Syrian regime in its war against the Syrian opposition.[1] This decline is manifest in the statements of Lebanese officials who, in recent years, were Hizbullah's allies, defended its weapons, and attacked anyone who called for its disarmament, but have lately begun to criticize it and speak out against its weapons. The most prominent of these is Lebanese President and former commander of the Lebanese army Michel Suleiman, who recently spoke out against Hizbullah several times, calling to limit its use of weapons, and even implied that it uses its weapons for purposes other than "resistance." This is a significant and unprecedented step on Suleiman's part, because, ever since the Taif Accord of 1989, Lebanese Presidents have been selected with Syria's blessing, and as such have been supporters of Hizbullah and its weapons.

Other officials who have attacked Hizbullah's weapons are Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who said on August 11, 2012 that Lebanon "cannot continue to maintain the unclear partnership between the military, the people, and the resistance [weapons] at the expense of the country, army, security, economy and fate [of the Lebanese people]",[2] and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who said recently, in response to the launching of a Hizbullah drone into Israel, that "any Lebanese action on the ground against Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty are forbidden outside of national consensus."[3]

The change in the officials' stance is presumably due to the significant decline in Syria's status in Lebanon in the last 18 months in light of the events there – a decline that has prompted these Lebanese officials to take more independent stances and to criticize Syria and Hizbullah. It is also possible that, due the accusations that are being leveled against Assad for killing his own people, these officials do not want to be associated with his regime, lest they share in its disgrace.

Hizbullah's weakening is also expressed in increasing public criticism against it following the publication of documents by Al-Arabiya TV indicating that the organization, under orders from Syria, assassinated journalist Gebran Tueni in 2005, and in accusations that it is military involved in suppressing the Syrian rebellion. Also indicative of this weakening is that, according to reports, Hizbullah has delayed its party's convention due to the Syrian crisis.

Suleiman Acting To Arm Lebanese Army, Limit Use Of Hizbullah Weapons

Suleiman, who became Lebanese president in May 2008 with Syria and Hizbullah's blessing, has begun, since May 2012, to take independent positions – first on Syria,[4] and later also on Hizbullah and its weapons. Many in Lebanon feel that Hizbullah's weapons are a threat to domestic order, especially after the events of May 7, 2008, when the organization used them against its domestic rivals. As said, this turn in Suleiman's position was enabled by the decline of both Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

The first wave of criticism against Hizbullah's weapons and against the slogan "The Army, The People, and The Resistance"[5] – which grants legitimacy to Hizbullah to act against Israel alongside the Lebanese army – was directed at the organization by Suleiman in early August 2012, in a speech on the 67th anniversary of the founding of the Lebanese army. Suleiman said: "The state rejects any claim or circumstance meant to force the army to relinquish its commitment to any part of Lebanon's territory... There is no room for a partnership [of any element] with the army and with [Lebanon's] legal and official forces in matters of security, sovereignty, and the complete control of power, which are the exclusive prerogatives of the state."[6]

On September 20, 2012, Suleiman submitted a document presenting his stance on the issue of Hizbullah's weapons versus the Army's weapons to the members of the Lebanese National Dialogue – a forum including the major political elements in Lebanon, which began discussing Lebanon's "defense strategy" in 2008 in an attempt to resolve the dispute over Hizbullah's weapons.[7] Suleiman renewed the forum's activity in June 2012 with the blessing of the Saudi king. In the document, Suleiman proposes "to approve a law to arm the Lebanese army for the intermediate future, and to allocate sufficient resources to develop its human and military capabilities, so that it can formulate a plan to defend the country's land, air, and sea." Until this end is achieved, Suleiman proposed that "all sides agree on the framework and appropriate mechanisms for use of the resistance weapons, for determining who controls them, and for approving [a procedure for] handing them over to the military, which is exclusively responsible for operating mechanisms of power." Suleiman also stressed that "resistance does not commence except after occupation."[8]

The first part of Suleiman's proposal, which discusses arming the military, is meant to counter Hizbullah's pretext, which it has been using for decades, that only it, and not the army, has the capability to protect Lebanon and to hold and operate the weapons in its possession. It should be mentioned that the Lebanese government recently approved a five-year plan for the military[9] and has asked the EU to help fund it. The second part of Suleiman's proposal addresses the interim stage until the military is armed. Suleiman claims that this stage will last one to two years, during which the use and control of the resistance weapons will be carried out with the agreement of all political elements in the country. Suleiman reiterates that the military is exclusively in charge of "operating the mechanisms of power," though his suggestion to reach a general consensus could sabotage this goal. During his visit to Uruguay in early October, Suleiman said: "We have decided to arm the Lebanese military in five years, so that it will have the exclusive capability to carry weapons in Lebanon and defend the land."[10]

Al-Akhbar columnist Nicolas Nassif reported that Hizbullah did not like Suleiman's proposal, and had sent messages calling on him to not present it and to avoid interfering in the conflict between the March 8 Forces and the March 14 Forces regarding Hizbullah's weapons.[11]

Suleiman Questions The Connection Between Hizbullah's Weapons And The Resistance

Suleiman even tried to draw a distinction between weapons for the purpose of resistance and Hizbullah's weapons, in order to prevent Hizbullah from using the issue of the resistance and its weapons for narrow partisan, sectarian-Shi'ite, or foreign-Iranian interests, and to limit Hizbullah and its weapons. This distinction was apparent in speeches made by Suleiman to Lebanese diaspora communities in Latin America. In a speech to the Lebanese diaspora in Argentina in early October, as well as upon his return to Lebanon, Suleiman stressed that the weapons of the resistance were only meant to defend Lebanon and its territory (as opposed to defending Iran from an Israeli attack, for example). He added that any weapons used for other purposes, either inside the country (hinting at Hizbullah and the events of May 7, 2008) or outside it but not against Israel (such as in Syria, for example) must be confiscated.[12] In saying this, Suleiman implied that Hizbullah uses its weapons for purposes other than "resistance" – such as against its political rivals in Lebanon and against the Syrian rebels – and even implied that he objected to these weapons being used to defend Iran.

During his visit to Peru, Suleiman said that his defense strategy proposal suggests that, until the military is properly armed, "the military [and not Hizbullah] will use the resistance weapons only in case of Israeli aggression on Lebanese soil, and not for any other internal or external purpose [such as defending Iran or fighting in Syria, for example]. The weapons will be used [only] at the request of the military in case of [Israeli] aggression [on Lebanese soil], and by order of the government, [not Hizbullah]."[13] Suleiman's objection to the possibility that Hizbullah use its weapons in case of an Israeli attack on Iran was also expressed in his speech in Uruguay, where he said: "Starting today, we will not allow Lebanon to become an arena for sending messages to anyone, or a place to defend any regime or country other than Lebanon [itself]."[14]

Na'im Qassem: The Resistance And Hizbullah Are One; Do Not Think Of Disarming Us

At first, Hizbullah refrained from responding to Suleiman's proposal. However, it was outraged when Suleiman attempted to differentiate the organization's weapons from those of the resistance. Hizbullah Deputy Secretary- General Sheikh Na'im Qassem said: "In Lebanon there is one party called Hizbullah. We do not have a military wing and a political wing. We do not have Hizbullah [on one hand] and the resistance party [on the other]. Hizbullah is a political party and the resistance party. The distinctions being drawn by certain people are forbidden and nonexistent."[15] He added: "No one is competing with the state for exclusive control of weapons... However, if the intention of the slogan [that the state should exclusively control the weapons] is to disarm the resistance, then we say to them that this is the last thing they should think of."[16] Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, the head of Hizbullah's Juristic Council, also responded to the attempt to delegitimize the organization's weapons, saying: "We will protect our weapons at any cost, [for] they are like the blood flowing through our veins."[17]

The daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, also joined the attack on Suleiman. In an article published on October 10, 2012, a source in the March 8 Forces was cited as saying that Suleiman "returned from Peru a different man... His positions during the events of May 7, 2008 caused the March 8 Forces, and specifically Hizbullah, to agree to his appointment as Lebanese president... He began changing his opinions publicly when he took a stand... regarding the arrest of former minister Michel Samaha [who was accused of transferring explosive devices from Syria to Lebanon]...[18] Moreover, he [said that he] was waiting for a phone call from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad [in order to receive clarifications on the Samaha affair]... The days pass and the president focuses more and more efforts on [developing] his extreme positions regarding Syria. He did not offer blessings to Assad at the end of the [Ramadan] fast... Has he forgotten that the Syrians preferred him to 25 other Maronite officers [as president]?... He attacked Syria and neutralized Hizbullah, but before long he [also] attacked the resistance weapons from Latin America in an obvious game that distinguishes between Hizbullah's weapons and the weapons of the resistance." The article claimed further that "[Suleiman's] attack on the resistance weapons will not go without response [from Hizbullah]."[19]

Members of parliament from the Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Michel Aoun – an ally of Hizbullah and Syria – also attacked Suleiman's positions on Syria, which they had avoided doing thus far. MP Nabil Nicolas said: "The man that we hear boastful [remarks] against Syria [Suleiman] once praised Syria's role in Lebanon." Another MP from the same party, Fadi Al-A'war, said: "Some of the President's positions are at odds with the presidential role, [which requires] neutrality and protecting all of Lebanon."[20] MP Marwan Fares from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party said: "Suleiman broke the rules regarding the March 8 Forces."[21]

However, Hizbullah could be attempting to reach an agreement with Suleiman, as is claimed in an article by Al-Akhbar columnist Jean 'Aziz. 'Aziz claims that only Suleiman can bridge the major gaps between the two Lebanese camps, but that he must first retract the statements he made in Latin America. He also suggests that Suleiman should "secretly approach Nasrallah to discuss the issue," and then approach Al-Mustaqbal party leader Fuad Al-Siniora.[22]

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 861, Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon, July 25, 2012.

[2] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 13, 2012.

[3] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 17, 2012.

[4] On May 23, 2012, Suleiman denied statements by the Syrian ambassador to the UN, who had claimed that Lebanese border regions were a breeding ground for anti-Syrian terrorists. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 24, 2012; Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 19, 2012. Following accusations that former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha had transferred explosive devices from Syria to Lebanon and suspicion that Syrian officials had been complicit in the affair, Suleiman said that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should contact him to clarify the situation. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 19, 2012.

[5] This slogan is based on a phrase that was included in the guidelines of the Fuad Al-Siniora government in 2005; the Sa'd Al-Hariri government in 2009; and the Mikati government in 2011, which stated that "it is the right of Lebanon – the army, the people and the resistance [i.e. Hizbullah]... to defend Lebanon against any aggression." See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 565, The March 14 Forces after the Formation of the New Lebanese Government: From Electoral Victory to Political Defeat and Disintegration Within Five Months, November 22, 2009.

[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 2, 2012.

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 21, 2012. Suleiman has repeatedly mentioned the need to formulate a national defense strategy, including after the launching of a Hizbullah drone into Israel in October 2012. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 13, 2012.

[9] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 24, 2012.

[10] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 8, 2012.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), Septepber 25, 2012.

[12] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 5, 2012, October 11, 2012; Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 6, 2012.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 3, 2012.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 8, 2012.

[15] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), October 7, 2012.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 15, 2012.

[17] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 5, 2012.

[18] Several days after Samaha's arrest, Suleiman hosted the director of Lebanese Internal Security, Ashraf Rifi, and the head of Lebanese Intelligence, Wissam Al-Hassan (who has since been assassinated), and praised their actions leading to Samaha's arrest. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 12, 2012.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 11, 2012.

[20] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 14, 2012.

[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 9, 2012.

[22] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 13, 2012.

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