Lahad: Syria behind Gemayel’s murder
In rare interview, former South Lebanese Army commander Antoine Lahad addresses growing tension in Lebanon. Lahad, now living in Israel, is convinced that Syria is behind Pierre Gemayel’s assassination, doesn’t know why Israel gets so worked up over Hizbullah, and still hopes one day to return to his country
“I have no doubt about who assassinated Lebanese Minister Pierre Gemayel last week. It was the Syrians, there’s no question. It could be that one of their proxies in Lebanon carried out the actual assassination, but the order came from Damascus,” Lahad said.
Now 79 and still sharp as a tack, Lahad cannot understand why Israelis insist on seeing things differently, as with our view of Hizbullah and our general approach to events in Lebanon.
“There are things that you ignore. Just last weekend around a million people took to the streets for Gemayel’s funeral. It was a political message for Lebanon as well as the outside world, even for Israel. The masses said that they oppose anyone who is against the establishment of the international court, that is, that they are against Hizbullah,” he said.
When you saw Gemayel’s funeral on TV what did you feel?
I felt that Lebanon was being ripped apart, gripped on the one hand by Iran and Syria, and on the other by the US and Europe.
Ripped apart to the point where there is a chance of civil war?
There is a chance of civil war, but it’s still far away. The Lebanese have already tried that, and they know what the cost will be.
Yes, but one gets the impression that Hizbullah’s strength is growing, and in general, while there is no formal census, it appears that they represent the largest community in Lebanon, since the Shiites are some 40 percent of the population.
First of all, the Shiites are no more than 30 precent, at most a third, and not all of them support Hizbullah. There is the Shiite Amal movement, after all. Moreover, Hizbullah is not stupid. On the contrary, Nasrallah is very astute. He knows that if he brings his people to the streets with arms they will lose.
They have no chance to win if they are the ones who start a civil war. They will be at most a third, and they will be opposed by Christians, Sunnis, and Druze, who are about two thirds. If Nasrallah is the one who starts a civil war, ultimately he will be disarmed.
But Hizbullah is well armed. It’s received weapons from Iran.
So what? It has missiles north of the Litani River, according to reports, and it’s a fact that it’s not shooting them at Israel. So if it won’t shoot them at its enemy, do you think that it will shoot them within Lebanon? You have to understand that it has no chance because in Lebanon everyone has weapons at home. Therefore, Nasrallah can hold mass demonstrations but he can’t bring about armed clashes.
Is he interested in changing the Taif Accords and becoming the official political leader of Lebanon? And what is the chance of a Hizbullah coup?
He is not capable of changing the Taif Accords even if he wants to. Don’t forget: Lebanon has 17 different ethnic groups. Hizbullah simply cannot fight the others and certainly cannot control Lebanon democratically. Perhaps it wants to; after all Hizbullah is a Khomenist arm of Iran, but at the moment it cannot. And in general, in the Taif Accords there are clauses that have not been implemented, like the disarming of armed militias and having weapons controlled by the army only.
Lahad: 'If Nasrallah starts civil war, he will be disarmed' (Photo: Ofer Amram)
As for a coup, I’m Lebanese and he is Lebanese and I really don’t want there to be a coup. Today Nasrallah does not constitute a real threat to Israel, but if he becomes ruler of Lebanon, he will become a threat to Israel.
'I knew Hizbullah would become an obstacle because of your withdrawal'Lahad strongly opposed the way the IDF carried out its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. He warned against unilateral withdrawal, but Israel refused to listen. He found out about the IDF withdrawal while in Paris, and the only thing he could do was to hear how his life’s work collapsed within hours.
“I didn’t oppose the withdrawal. On the contrary, I was even in France at that time on a mission to check what the chance was that a French force would enter in place of the SLA when Israel withdrew quickly, but I vehemently opposed a withdrawal without an agreement, and look what happened. When we were there, did Hizbullah have missiles? They had machine guns at most. My people held 46 outposts and the IDF another 11, and the entire picture was completely different," he said.
“In truth, I was approached in 1998 by residents of Jezzine while we controlled that sector and they asked us to withdraw. In principle I supported a withdrawal with an agreement because I wanted to connect the south with Lebanon. I checked with then Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, and we even succeeded in convincing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement Security Council resolutions 425 and 426 and to withdraw from southern Lebanon, but the idea was shelved because there was no one with whom to conduct negotiations," he added.
"But Barak made a commitment at the time to withdraw unilaterally within a year, he won the elections and carried it out, and look what happened. In truth, I wasn’t at all surprised by what happened. I knew that Hizbullah would become an obstacle after the way in which Israel withdrew,” Lahad concluded.
How do you see the results of the recent war in Lebanon?
First of all, who said it was a war? At most it was several clashes, not a war. Second of all, I believe that Hizbullah was not the victor. Both sides lost, but Israel had achievements on the diplomatic front because this is the first time that an international force under UN sponsorship has come to separate Israel from Lebanon. Let me remind you that UNIFIL, which was in Lebanon until now, was there in the role of observers.
But Israel is having a real crisis, while it appares as if Hizbullah is only getting stronger. You wouldn't say that Hizbullah won?
What kind of victory is this? A thousand men succeeded in breaking Israel? Did it succeed in conquering one millimeter of Israel? Even in Lebanon people know that it cannot conquer one millimeter, and it certainly can’t ‘liberate Jerusalem,’ but it is using this to increase its strength within Lebanon. Who is Hizbullah? The U.S.? Is it an empire? Hizbullah is just the tail of the snake whose head is Iran and Syria.
Lahad also has implicit criticism for Israel: “You withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and now you’ve fought them as if they’re a militia, but they are no longer a militia. Their type of warfare was not that of a militia. They did not hit and run. On the contrary. And what did Israel do? You didn’t go into one Shiite village besides a house-and-a-half in Maroun a-Ras. That’s not serious. Planes can destroy houses, but in order to succeed on the ground you have to send in infantry and the armored corps as well."
"And in general, Israel destroyed the bridges so that supplies would not be moved, correct? I am a military man, and such things have happened to us in the past. You know what you do in a situation like this? You bring in arms on donkeys. This isn’t serious,” he added.
Do you believe that Iranians are assisting them now?
No question about it. There are definitely Iranian supervisors there as well. The entire Iranian Embassy in Lebanon is full of supervisors. And Syria is assisting as well.
Has Syrian involvement not decreased following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon?
On the contrary, it has only increased. Syria controls the figures with power in the political system: The president and the speaker of the Parliament, and in the realm of security it is involved in intelligence matters.
So you claim that Syria is behind the recent assassination, as well as the previous assassinations?
The Syrians are behind the assassinations, as well as the recent one, because they are afraid of the establishment of an international court, and they will do anything to torpedo its establishment. Another Syrian interest behind the assassination is the desire to cause conflict within the Christian community. I am from the Shuf Mountains. I know how these things work there.
But in Lebanon they say that perhaps they were elements within the Christian community, and that the assassination was perpetrated differently, not with explosives, as in the other recent assassinations, but with gunfire.
So what? Kamal Junblatt (a prominent Lebanese politician assassinated by the Syrians in 1977) was also killed by gunshots with a car that blocked his path.
What’s happening in Syria? In your estimation, is Assad in control there?
It is actually Syrian intelligence that controls the situation there. Bashar is really not like his father. Look at his speeches. Do you think his father would have spoken like that?
But he’s threatening to liberate the Golan Heights the way Hizbullah fought Israel.
He is afraid because he knows that you’ll destroy Syria. After all, you conquered the Golan Heights in 1967, and what have they done since then in the Golan Heights? Nothing. They aren’t even thinking about a war against you because they are afraid that you’d destroy them. His father, for example, formulated the idea of strategic balance with Israel, made an agreement with Iran, and invaded Lebanon. And he? He isn’t even thinking about war with Israel. They are simply not able. It is the Syrian regime that would pay the price of war—it would be in danger of a real coup d’etat.
And what about his constant declarations of peace toward Israel?
Assad is a member of the Alawites, and in Syria an Alawite simply cannot sign a peace agreement with Israel. If Sadat was assassinated then what do you think would happen to him? If he goes to war, he will be held to account, and if he makes peace, he will be held to account. There’s just one difference: That after a war he will perhaps hold on for a bit longer, because in spite of it all, he will earn a bit of empathy from the public after a war he has fought against Israel. Perhaps he wants peace, but he can’t make peace.
Even if you give him the entire Sea of Galilee. The Alawites in Syria are a minority, a bit more than a tenth of the population. I am sure that if he does this, there will be a coup in Syria. You also have to take into account the Muslim Brothers in Syria, who are very strong.
Overall, when it comes to Syria and Lebanon, you have to await the international inquiry. If it convicts Syria, then everything will change. Syria will undergo a real crisis and Lebanon will return to what it once was—before the era of Syrian involvement. And then, God willing, we’ll return to the ceasefire agreements we had with you and we’ll have a democratic state.
In the meantime, Lahad spends his time in Israel, in France—where his family has lived for several years—and in Belgium. He watches events in Lebanon on television and is very well-informed about what is happening there. When asked if he is optimistic or pessimistic, he prefers to use the word “realistic.” In any case, a return to Lebanon does not appear possible at this point.
And what has to happen in order for you to return to Lebanon?
It depends on many things. There has to be a court hearing there, but I object to that, even if I am promised a pardon. After all, a court hearing means that I committed a crime, which never happened. If everything returns to the way it was in Lebanon, I will know how and when to return, and no one will be able to stop me.