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memri
August 22, 2013 No.
1011

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Renews His Attack On Hizbullah's Weapons

Introduction

In an August 1, 2013 address on the occasion of Lebanese Army Day, which he devoted to the army's role as the nation's defender, Lebanese president Michel Suleiman renewed his attack on Hizbullah's arsenal, even referring to it as "illegal weapons." Suleiman argued that these weapons make it difficult and even impossible for the Lebanese army to fulfill its role as the country's sole legitimate military organ. He reiterated the proposal he had submitted in September 2012 to the National Dialogue Committee, which is seeking a solution to the issue of Hizbullah's weapons, [1] namely that the weapons of the resistance (i.e. Hizbullah) would be placed under the authority of the state, which is the only body authorized to defend Lebanon, its territory and the its natural resources by means of the Lebanese army. The president emphasized that the Lebanese army has the sole prerogative of defending the country.

Hizbullah's weapons were not the only target of the president's criticism. Suleiman also attacked the various Lebanese elements involved in the fighting in Syria, meaning both Hizbullah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian regime, and the Al-Mustaqbal faction and the Salafis, who are fighting alongside the Syrian rebels.[2] He claimed that genuine martyrdom could only be performed on behalf of Lebanon and on Lebanese soil, rather than on behalf of another country. He also slammed the Al-Mustaqbal faction and the Salafis for the bitter campaign they have been waging against the Lebanese military in the recent months. This campaign was a response to the army's action against Lebanese Salafis, especially Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir, who are supporting the Syrian rebels.[3]

This is not the first time Suleiman has criticized Hizbullah's arsenal and called to place it under the authority of the state. However, this address was unusual its bluntness and asperity, and elicited correspondingly harsh responses. A few hours after the address, two Katyusha missiles fell next to the presidential Palace in Ba'abda. The incident was interpreted in Lebanon as a direct reaction to Suleiman's speech. In addition, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, identified with Hizbullah, exhorted Suleiman to resign from his post.

This report surveys the main points of Suleiman's address, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar's response to it, and Suleiman's previous remarks against Hizbullah's weapons, which attest to his consistent and firm policy on this issue.

Suleiman's Address: Illegal Weapons Make It Difficult For The Army To Function

In his August 1, 2013 address, delivered at the main Army Day ceremony at the army staff headquarters, Suleiman repeatedly emphasized that, following long and bitter experience, the Lebanese want the state to be exclusively responsible for defending Lebanon's honor and sovereignty: "… Times have changed, wars and revolutions have erupted, coups and changes have taken place in the Middle East and in the Arab region, regimes have been replaced and new constitutions have been drafted – [but] our democratic regime and the essence of the [National] Pact[4] have remained constant, despite the upheavals [occurring in the region]… The Lebanese army safeguards [the democratic regime in Lebanon], guarantees Lebanese unity and independence, and reinforces the belief that pluralism is the secret to [Lebanon's] essence and survival… Following the bitter experiences with the [Israeli] occupation, and the problems [deriving from the existence of] statelets, militias and [Syrian] patronage, the Lebanese firmly opt for a state that is defended [only] by its army and is [exclusively responsible for] sheltering [the Lebanese] and safeguarding their rights and dignity, and which defends and practices pluralism while shunning struggles over identities, beliefs, sectarianism and axes…"[5]

Lebanon Is Becoming A Battlefield Because Some Lebanese Are Involved In Struggles Outside The Country's Borders

Suleiman referred in his address to the recent powerful attack on the army by both Salafis elements and the Al-Mustaqbal faction. Lebanese Salafis accused the army that, by moving against Islamist groups in the country, including Al-Asir's, it was abetting Hizbullah and the Assad regime and acting against the Sunni community. The Al-Mustaqbal faction accused the army of collaborating with Hizbullah's armed fighters in the battle they were waging against Sheikh Al-Asir in Sidon. Suleiman emphasized that an attack on the army was unacceptable: "Security is not the only thing that preserves the homeland. Nevertheless, a homeland cannot exist without security, and security, sovereignty and dignity cannot exist without the army. Just as a citizen has the right to [receive] security, protection and defense from the state and the army, so the army has rights [that are owed it] by the nation and the state. In addition to arms, gear, and material and moral backing, [the army also] requires an uncontaminated national environment and the embrace of state sponsorship. The Army is not an abstract and distinct body operating in isolation from the state and the nation. It is part of them. [It operates] on their behalf, and seeks official political backing that relies on a popular decision underpinned by [universal public] support… The army must not be [forced to] shift from a position of defending the citizens to [one of] defending itself … In these sensitive circumstances, a campaign of support for the army, rather than an attack upon it, is mandated."

Suleiman proceeded to rebuke the various Lebanese parties involved in the Syrian war – both Hizbullah that is fighting alongside the Assad regime and the Al-Mustaqbal faction and Salafi elements who are assisting the rebels. He said that, by fighting in Syria, they were dragging Lebanon into the fray and thus hampering the Lebanese army in performing its tasks, since the army feared that its actions could be misconstrued as intervention against a specific political group or sect in Lebanon. He warned: "The army will fail in its tasks if the [current] situation persists, [namely the situation] in which it is impossible to curb any harassment or harm to the army or to citizens for fear of affronting some sect or some group within it. [Another] matter that is hindering the army in fulfilling its role is the involvement of a Lebanese group, or [several] groups, in struggles outside [Lebanon's] borders, which results in importing external crises and transforming the country into an open arena for a proxy war [with Hizbullah acting as an agent of the resistance front and the Salafis as agents of the Syrian rebels]…"

It Is High Time That The Army Alone Wields The Capacity To Defend Lebanon

Suleiman emphasized that the illegal weapons were harming and even paralyzing the army, and reiterated his call to implement his year-old proposal to place Hizbullah's weapons under the authority of the state. He also urged to implement all the clauses of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, apparently alluding to the clauses calling for consolidating Lebanese state control over South Lebanon and disarming the armed organizations, i.e., Hizbullah. He said: "As long as the situation of weapons duality prevails – [namely, a situation where the army's] legal weapons [exist] alongside the illegal weapons [of various Lebanese parties including Hizbullah] – it will make it difficult, and perhaps even impossible, for the army to fulfill its role… There is a pressing need to examine and formulate [our] national defense strategy, in light of regional developments and in view of the sudden changes that have occurred in the essential role of the resistance's weapons, which have crossed Lebanon's borders [into Syria]. Based on the proposal that I presented on this matter to the people and to the National Dialogue [Committee]… and drawing a clear, precise and persistent distinction between resistance and terror, and in order to reinforce our ability to carry out resistance and defend Lebanon exclusively, the time has come for the state, in conjunction with its army and supreme political leadership, to be the main party responsible for these capabilities [meaning the use of Hizbullah's arms] and for deciding [how] to use them.

"At the same time, and now that Lebanon has succeeded in liberating most of its territories from Israeli occupation with the help of all its capabilities… we do not forget the continued execution of plans for arming and equipping the army that were ratified by the government. This, in order to [ensure] the army total readiness and full capacity that will allow it – and only it – to maintain the [military equipment] needed in order to defend Lebanon's sovereignty, its land, air and maritime borders, and its potential natural resources of gas and oil. Additionally, it is necessary to fully implement the clauses of [Security Council] Resolution 1701[6] with the welcome assistance of the UNIFIL forces…

"The era when the army was prevented from defending Lebanon, and the state was prevented from defending the army, has come and gone. The army is not, and in no case will it be, a force [whose task is to] separate small Lebanese armies, militias or armed groups who presume to defend sectarian, communal, neighborhood or regional matters. [The army] is the legitimate representative of Lebanese nationalism and the perpetual embodiment of the unity of Lebanon and the Lebanese…"

Genuine Martyrdom Takes Place Only On National Soil And For The Sake Of The Homeland

Suleiman again criticized the involvement by Lebanese parties in the Syrian fighting, saying: "[These days] we are celebrating the anniversary of the resistance to the Israeli aggression against Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and the victory over Israel. On Army Day, I congratulate all the nation's martyrs and the army's martyrs who sacrificed themselves throughout the homeland and on all fronts in order to defend Lebanon against aggression and the outbreaks of extremism and terror… And I say unreservedly to all the Lebanese that genuine martyrdom [shahada] is [performed] only for the sake of the homeland and in defense of its unity, soil and honor. The Lebanese people want to sacrifice for Lebanon. They do not want their children's blood to water soil that is not the sacred soil of the homeland."[7]

Ibrahim Al-Amin To Suleiman: Step Down!

Hizbullah, which regarded itself as the target of Suleiman's harsh and blunt criticism, made no official response to the address but opted for an indirect reply via the pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. On August 2, 2013, the day after Suleiman's address, the daily's front page featured an unflattering photo of Suleiman under the headline "Step Down!".


The August 2, 2013 front page of Al-Akhbar: A photo of Suleiman with the headline "Step Down"

The article, by the chairman of the daily's board of directors, Ibrahim Al-Amin, savagely attacked Suleiman and asked who put him in charge. Al-Amin wrote: What is happening with President Suleiman is bizarre. What is going on with him? What is motivating him, what is he thinking, what troubles him, what group is he involved with? With whom does he consult, who thinks on his behalf and in his stead, who writes [his speeches] for him, who is advising him? Who constitutes his public and who is his imagined audience, with whom is he talking today?... Who induced him to imagine that he's the number one [leader] of the state? Who put it into his head that only he is capable of saving Lebanon, that his word is law, and that the country's existence is dependent on what he says or thinks?... Who gave him the idea that the extension of his [current] presidency is a done deal, and that he is the perpetual commander of the Lebanese army[8] and the appointed chief of the state and its people? How does he interpret events in the country, in the region and in the world?... What considerations guide his actions as the republic's president? What causes his family to lord it over all the other citizens...?

Yesterday President Suleiman came up with another contemptible bid'ah [forbidden religious innovation]… From his speech, it emerges that he has decided, unbeknownst to us, that the resistance has become a factor that threatens the state and the people's security. His Honor decided yesterday that the resistance has overstepped its boundaries and the boundaries of Lebanon. [However,] it is no longer important to deliberate with the president over his statements, and it is no use discussing anything whatsoever with him or to even to talk with him about what he or his assistants consider enlightened ideas and creative proposals. The only logic, the only language, and the most concise expression that can be usefully [applied to him], now and in the future, is [the following]: It is time for you to leave. Step Down!"

Suleiman Acting To Arm The Lebanese Military, Restrict The Use Of Hizbullah's Weapons

This is not the first time that President Suleiman has attacked Hizbullah's arsenal and has called to subordinate it to the state.[9] In May 2012, Suleiman, who became Lebanese president in May 2008 with Syria and Hizbullah's blessing, began to take independent positions – first on Syria,[10] and later also on Hizbullah and its weapons, which many in Lebanon feel are a threat to domestic order, especially after the events of May 7, 2008, when the organization used them against its domestic rivals. Speaking out against Hizbullah was 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. This shift in Suleiman's position was enabled by the decline of both Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Suleiman made his first attack on Hizbullah's weapons and on the slogan "The Army, The People, and The Resistance"[11] – which grants legitimacy to Hizbullah to act against Israel alongside the Lebanese army – in last year's Army Day speech, in August 2012. He said: "The state rejects any claim or circumstance meant to force the army to relinquish its commitment to [defending] 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."[12]

On September 20, 2012, Suleiman submitted a document presenting his stance on the issue of Hizbullah's weapons to the Lebanese National Dialogue Committee – a forum comprising representatives of Lebanon's major political forces, which was established in 2008 to formulate Lebanon's "defense strategy" and find a solution to the controversy over Hizbullah's arms.[13] Suleiman renewed the forum's activity in June 2012 with the blessing of the Saudi king. In his document, Suleiman proposed "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] placing them under the authority of the military, which is exclusively responsible for operating mechanisms of power." Suleiman also stressed that "resistance does not commence except after occupation."[14]

The first part of Suleiman's proposal, which discussed arming the military, was 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, in 2012, the Lebanese government approved a five-year plan for the military[15] and asked the E.U. to help fund it. The second part of Suleiman's proposal addressed the interim stage until the military is armed. Suleiman proposed that this stage would last one to two years, during which the use and control of the resistance weapons would be carried out with the agreement of all political elements in the country. Suleiman reiterated 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 2012, 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."[16]

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.[17]

Suleiman Questions The Connection Between Hizbullah's Weapons And Resistance

Suleiman has even tried to draw a distinction between weapons for the purpose of resistance and Hizbullah's weapons, in order to prevent Hizbullah from using its weapons to achieve narrow partisan, sectarian-Shi'ite, or foreign-Iranian interests, and to limit Hizbullah and its weapons. This distinction was apparent in speeches he made 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.[18] 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]."[19] 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]."[20]

* E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI; H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] The National Dialogue Committee, comprising representatives of Lebanon's major political forces, was established in 2008 to formulate Lebanon's "defense strategy" in order to find a solution to the controversy over Hizbullah's weapons. The forum renewed its activity in June 2012 at Suleiman's initiative and with the blessing of Saudi King 'Abdallah.

[2] On the involvement of Lebanese elements in the Syrian war, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 916, "Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria, " January 3, 2013.

[3] On the armed conflict between the army and Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 988, "Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Al-Asir Launches Armed Struggle Against 'Shi'ite' Lebanese Army," June 26, 2013.

[4] The National Pact (in Arabic: Al-Mithaq Al-Watani) of 1943 was an unwritten agreement negotiated by the leaders of the Lebanese communities shortly after the gaining of independence. It laid the foundations of Lebanon as a multi-confessional state, including the proportional division of posts by community, and continues to shape Lebanon to this day.

[5] Suleiman is alluding to the sectarian struggle, as well as the regional struggle between the resistance axis headed by Iran and the opposing axis headed by Saudi Arabia, which has reflections in Lebanon.

[6] This resolution emphasizes the importance of consolidating Lebanese governmental control over all of Lebanon's territory. It also calls for the full implementation of the relevant sections of the Taif Agreement and of U.N. Resolutions 1559 and1680, which call for disarming all militias in Lebanon. This, in accordance with the Lebanese government's decision of July 27, 2006 that no armed parties and no authority should exist in the country other than the army and the authority of the state.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 2, 2013.

[8] Suleiman served as the commander of the Lebanese army from 1998 and until he was appointed president in 2008.

[9] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 891, "Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Comes Out Against Hizbullah And Its Weapons," October 22, 2012.

[10] On May 23, 2012, Suleiman denied the claim of the Syrian ambassador to the U.N. that the Lebanese border regions were a breeding ground for anti-Syria 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 with the assistance of Syrian officials, Suleiman said that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should contact him to clarify the situation. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 19, 2012.

[11] This slogan is based on a phrase that appeared in the guidelines of the 2005 Fuad Al-Siniora government; the 2009 Sa'd Al-Hariri government and the 2011Mikati government, 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.

[14] 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.

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

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

[17] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 25, 2012.

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

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

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