The Security Challenges for Lebanon and the Surrounding Area
(Major General Abbas Ibrahim, September 20, 2017)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Major General Abbas Ibrahim is head of Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security (DGS), which Asharq al-Awsat calls “The Eyes and Ears of the Lebanese State.” He is a highly decorated officer with first-hand knowledge of the most sensitive security challenges in the Middle East.
Before his appointment as Director General of General Security in 2011, General Ibrahim held many significant positions. In 1994, he was appointed head of the counter-terrorism and espionage department at the intelligence directorate – G2. He served as Head of Counter Terrorism branch – G2 from 1998 – 2002. Before that, in 1989, he was the personal bodyguard of Arab League envoy to Lebanon Lakhdar Brahimi. He was then appointed bodyguard to late President Elias al-Hrawi and remained in that post until 1992 when he was tasked with protecting then newly appointed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
He first enrolled in military school when he was 19 and graduated three years later with the rank of lieutenant. Throughout the 1980s, he took part in several training courses in the military, culminating in an infantry course in the United States in 1989. He also received advanced security training in the United Kingdom in 1998.
Between 2005 and 2008, Ibrahim was head of the intelligence bureau in the South, putting him on the frontlines of the unrest in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh.
Major General Abbas Ibrahim is the head of Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security, which Al Sharq Al Awsat calls, “the eyes and ears of the Lebanese state.” He is in Washington for a number of important meetings.
I am not going to read a longer introduction. He has held many key positions in counterterrorism on behalf of Lebanon. He has trained at U.S. Military institutions and infantry, as well as in Great Britain.
And as is required by the State of Lebanon, when senior officials speak on matters of security and intelligence, General Ibrahim will be addressing us in Arabic this evening and our friend, Entifadh Qanbar, will be up here translating for him. However, the General speaks fluent English and is happy to take questions and answers in English after his talk or French or the other languages…
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim:
…or Arabic. There are a number of Arabic speakers here, so feel free to do that. Also, I am happy to say we do have or will have the English version of the General’s remarks. I will let Entifadh have this one in case he needs it and as those arrive, they will be able outside if you care to have one when you leave. Please join me in welcoming General Ibrahim.
Maj. Gen Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
At the beginning I would like to say good evening. My name is General Abbas Ibrahim. I am the General Director of the General Directorate of Security in Lebanon. I wanted to talk about the security challenges in Lebanon and the neighboring countries.
For three and a half decades past, my work was exclusively in the work of security and intelligence. During those past decades those security challenges were increasingly becoming more difficult and more challenging. It never retreated or decreased. It always increased and became more difficult to the point that becomes more worrying and fearful.
Specifically, after the attacks of September 11- the terrorist attacks of September 11. The question was in the West, why do they hate us? In spite of that [there] was cheering amongst those terrorists corners or groups in our areas. This kind of celebratory reaction made us worried, specifically after ISIS took over several countries in the region.
And it is almost the only unique issue that unifies us with the neighboring countries, is the issue of ISIS. It comes after it in priority. The challenge is after ISIS is gone, and the nature of the countries after ISIS or the post-ISIS era. And then also the challenge of peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
And there is also other different challenges, depending on the differences of the Arab countries and their nature. And which have differences in terms of political structure, the cultural structure, and the nature of it. In my experience with my country, specifically in difficult and critical times. I would like to warn to deal with the worst security from a technical point of view. It has to be combined even with the economics and the cultural aspects of the society.
This kind of dealing with security is a shallow way of dealing with the issue of security, and it is also a way to simplify how security should be understood. In order to understand the security challenges in Lebanon, we have to understand the political circumstances and the cultural circumstances in Lebanon.
And there are many challenges in the security situation in Lebanon, one of them is the excuse that to fight Israel or by some groups to carry the weapon to protect the group or the community from outside dangers. Those two reasons, it looks like they are legitimate and there is a reason behind it. Israel is an enemy of Lebanon, and it does not hesitate to assault Lebanon and violate its sovereignty on land, sea, and on the air and to threaten Lebanon continuously for upcoming wars through military exercises, which those military exercises will not do anything other than raise the degree of tension and security challenges and the last one, which means the last exercises which [were] conducted are now the biggest and the largest [in the last] twenty years. Additionally, Israel still refuses peace and even the basic human rights for humans and one of them is the right to decide the destiny of the people.
In principle, Lebanon is the country of compromises and political deals, continuously and it is a country when there is no winner and there is no loser and there is no victorious and there is no defeated and the instances in the past have proven that it is impossible for one party to dominate any other party and the price for such adventures of internal challenges are painful and very high in price and for those who claim they are the ones who are controlling the controls of the country.
And this equation before a parliamentarian and democratic system, which has featured Lebanon continuously that the always dialogue will win and always proven that Lebanon is not going to be a theocratic religious country and it will explode from the inside each time there is one party that wants to push to be in that axis. We have a precedent of that happening since Baghdad Treaty or Pact in 1958.
And also, the tension of 1967, [which] legitimized the presence of a militarized Palestinian existence inside Lebanon through regional and international pressure, which led to the spark of the civil war. And in 1982, the Israelis invaded Lebanon, reached Beirut, and then the Marines landed in Lebanon, and the multinational forces, and also the attacks, which have targeted these forces reaching to 2005 and the assassination of the Prime Minister, Rafik al Hariri. This has always proven that security in Lebanon is not independent equation by a self, but it is a result for the political equation that has governed the internal relations between the Lebanese and also between the internal relations as a whole with outside of Lebanon.
Lebanon failed to become an independent, civil country – an absolute, independent, civil country – against the sectarian divides in Lebanon, which resulted in internal and external tensions and also Lebanon failed to become a successful state, which can live with the bright side of the world of the free society of the world and also has proven it is impossible that we can have a state of khilafah inside a state or a state that is wilayat faqih, which means in other words we cannot be followers or dependents on Iran or Saudis or any other country.
I do not want to terrify you or fear you but Lebanon within the last years started to move forward in steady steps to gather all aspects of a failure state as a result of geopolitical presence and its internal problems, most of which are the outcomes of regional conflicts. On its southern border, there is Israel and its wars and its invasions, which have never stopped since its inception. To its north and to the east, there is Syria and the historical confusion in this relation with Syria. Even one of the Syrian opposition figures said recently to the Syrian regime that if Lebanon was a historical mistake or an outcome of a geographic outburst.
Those challenges led to deactivation of the effectiveness of the constitutional powers and also to the minimal degree of responsibility by the governing leadership in Lebanon. Therefore, in every improvement on the security or political improvement of Lebanon became a hostage for external powers and also to the circumstances of its interests conflicting or converging in Lebanon.
The challenges which are facing Lebanon are dangerous. We have security. We have political, economic, and humanitarian problems and a lot of these problems are an extension of the Arab-Israeli conflict, also the conflict in Syria. Also the historical mistake of comparing security challenges which are facing Lebanon has always been blaming this on outside powers and its interference in the internal affairs, which are leading to the problems in Lebanon and then distancing from the internal problems, which became part of the infrastructure of the Lebanese system.
First is the call for the outside, seeking his help in order to solve internal problems, which gave a reason for outside powers to interfere militarily in the legitimacy, which was awarded by those who requested his interference. The link to the outside in terms of the features of culture and Lebanese politics since the 9th century until today, which means from the time of the viceroys until the end of the Ottoman Empire, passing through the delegation with France after the Sykes-Picot Treaty and then the separation from Syria, then the relation with Egypt at the time of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and then the legitimizing of the Palestinian weapons in Lebanon, and then to the invasion of Israel to Beirut, and then imposing a president at the same night of the landing of the Marines at the shores of Beirut, and then the entrance of the multinational forces.
At the same time, with the failing for the project for the leftist and the Arab nationalist and the secular forces, which have been replaced by the lies of the religious rhetoric, very strongly, which had really shaped the Lebanese reality, political reality and created new and different security challenges and geopolitical challenges, which have been governed by money and force and they both carry a religious identity governed by the senses of minorities and also adventurist feelings.
At the same time, when the Christians of Lebanon went to deal with Israel to stop the effect of the Palestinian organizations and its inciting, its forcefully inciting, and seeking its demographic roots by the Muslims to be further away from Lebanon from the effect of the Islamic control and Sunni Muslims, they basically gave away the Nasseri leadership. Some Lebanese Christians started dealing with Israel. Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims were walking away from Abdul Nasser leadership and nationalism and going towards crowning the Gulf countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as their general leader influenced by money and wealth.
On the other hand, Shia Muslims were mainly attracted to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. They quickly turned into a decisive force that had determined Lebanon’s geopolitical position in the midst of the ongoing conflicts, especially after freeing the occupied Lebanese territories from Israel and entering Syria to support the Syrian regime in its war against two of the internationally classified terrorist groups, ISIS and al-Nusra.
Second, a majority of the political elite leaders are obvious to the importance of exercising the basic elements and functions of the state not to mention that they underestimate the use of sectarian arousing speeches filled with hatred and violence. In this context, the Lebanese people adopted a sectarian political system that continuously generates crises, weakens national unity, and prevents the shaping of a national identity that seeks to create a modern state instead of failing, falling into the traps of attraction of this or that axis.
The most distinguished fact in the challenges facing Lebanon is that the Lebanese people always chose a political system that prevented their social and political fusion. They have rather transformed their homeland into what can be called a sensitive [unintelligible] of political weapons to the point where the term Lebanization has become commonplace as a term used to describe the situation in countries torn apart by internal wars with foreign influence. It has even been used to analyze the Iraqi situation after the American occupation. Lebanon often appeared to be geographically inhabited by [unintelligible] who do not share common values and interests.
They did not even desire to be part of a sovereign, independent state, which has made it easier to fuel differences by awakening religious and sectarian identities. The question of national sovereignty is a point of view that can be refuted by different parties. All Lebanese entities and parties have called upon a foreign supporter to make decisions regarding its politics, economy, security and its equality.
Although we are not here to talk about the development and close relationship between sovereignty and security, we cannot but mention that most of the successive political leadership have ignored both matters. This is because they failed to understand and practice the political functions of the two most important things in building a state. These leaders did not exercise exclusive authority over Lebanon’s geography and democracy, and they were unable to defend the limits of sovereignty in a manner that reflects the dimensions of freedom, independence, and political maturity. This was supported by the sectarian culture and the people obsessing with figures that always proved to be [unintelligible].
What is worse is that some politicians do not shy away from violating the concept of sovereignty by asking for foreign aid. The irony is that history shows Lebanon as one of the countries in the world that called for sovereignty and independence, and that received support from the international community. On the other hand, it might be the only country with the highest recorded rate of foreign armies and militias entering its territories.
The third challenge, which is no less important than all that was mentioned, lays in the spread of corruption on a large scale in both horizontal and vertical directions with the absence of transparency, governance, and sustainable development policies. This has led to massive demonstrations organized by the civil society in Lebanon due to the accumulation of economic, social, and environmental problems. Corruption reached the Lebanese political structure from the parallel economics that have arisen throughout its history.
A simple example is the inability to find alternative [crops] to the cultivation of drugs or to legitimize their presence for medical use as it is the case in many countries. Another is the financing of this or that group by several entities to revive the sectarian concerns and identities, and to give them power over the comprehensive national identity. In Lebanon, this is known as political money, which feeds the media, and the educational, and the health institutions by dealing with projects and development commitments according to the logic of sectarian and confessional quotas.
Few institutions are still immune to the corruption virus, which has hampered the development of the society and affected humans and laws. This has undermined the people’s trust in leaders and even in the judiciary power as in the authority of justice that guarantees the continuity and prosperity of nations. It is not exaggeration to say that corruption is the first [unintelligible] in Lebanon in Lebanese political life. It is common to buy votes by exploiting the poor and the destitute, as well as bargaining with stakeholders and the economic and financial forces to direct their forces according to the political and sectarian fervor with the aim of controlling the legislative and executive authorities. This has weakened [the] security and stability of Lebanon.
This is Lebanon. These are the serious challenges it faces on the internal level with a weakened political system characterized by disintegration. In addition to the semi-general ignorance of the meaning of state sovereignty laws, integrity, and transparency. Therefore, it is natural that Lebanon’s doors are open to foreign political, military, security and intelligence interventions sometimes due to domestic demand and sometimes because of the disrespect of foreign entities and the ease of diving into the Lebanese contradictions despite the fact [that] this small country has managed to stop all attempts to occupy or dominate it.
The internal challenges are, as stated earlier, the most serious security challenge facing Lebanon and the region, [and there] are two. First, the new old challenge in South Lebanon because of the escalation of Israeli threats of a third, comprehensive war, as well as its continued rejection of peace based on international resolutions and the Beirut Resolution of 2002. Meanwhile, the international community has given up its role in the face of successive Israeli incursions. Since 1978, it has turned its back on the subject of Palestinian refugees and their right to return to their land and their right of self-determination.
This threat comes at a time when Lebanon bares alone the risk of this asylum in a country that is very sensitive to demographic changes, especially due to the fact that some refugee camps have turned into security hotspots that threaten Lebanese stability and security. This happened in the Nahr El Bared camp in northern Lebanon in 2007, and it is currently happening in Ein El Hilweh camp adjacent to the southern city of Sidon, part of which has become a place of residence of terrorist fighters affiliated [with] groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra.
Therefore, due to Israel’s continued rejection of [the] peace initiative, its insistence on rejecting the right of return, the violation of sovereignty by land, sea, and air, the general tendency strongly acknowledged towards armament under the titles liberating Palestine and protecting itself from attacks. Lebanon has suffered and continues to suffer from this particular challenge because of its geographic attachment to Israel as well as the presence of at least half a million Palestinians on its soil, wishing to return to the land of their fathers and ancestors.
Our security and political assessment in Lebanon is that these kinds of challenges will not disappear unless the international community responds and guarantees a just and comprehensive solution that includes our neighbor, Syria, with which we share a common border of 380 kilometers.
Second, the war in Syria poses very dangerous challenge in the region, not only to Lebanon but also to the international community because of the terrorists who came from all around the world to participate in the fight. This issue has become increasingly dangerous to the international community because of the terrorists’ success in infiltrating or returning to their countries of origin or to those who finance and sponsor their arrival. This geographic attachment means that we are facing two kinds of dangers. The first lays in the possibility that Lebanon will continue to [suffer] the detonation of car bombs by dormant cells and gangs among the displaced who we are trying to keep track of despite the limited technical and technological capabilities.
The second is the fear of an individual terrorist acting alone, using, dodging, stabbing or random armed attacks. We are still more vulnerable than European and Western countries because we do not know the exact number of refugees since Lebanon received waves of displaced people beyond its geographic, economic, and security capabilities. The fact made the Syrian asylum similar to its form and content to the seriousness of the Palestinian asylum at the levels of terrorist attacks, and the explosion of its internal situation under the weight of sectarian components concerns of any democratic [unintelligible].
The concerns I mentioned are serious and realistic because the Lebanese social, logical structure is based on mutual [cooperation] between sects and feeds on the continuous support of a foreign entity. This led to a decade-and-a-half civil war during 1975. And at a time when no similar issue happened in a country claiming to have a republican, democratic, and parliamentary regime like Lebanon. The Israeli threat and the deviation of the Syrian revolution from its reformative course towards an open war that has lasted almost seven years now, and its resulting asylum added fire to the sectarian fears and concerns of all Lebanese groups.
In order to address these facts, Lebanon cannot rely only on the statements of adherence to its stability and sovereignty because of its politics and security are made up of pretexts and facts. It is important to bear in mind that these are the fragile factors that Lebanon had then and now. Lebanon cannot continue its current role as a refuge for refugees without international assistance in all ways and all levels, the most important of which is to secure the return of displaced Palestinians and Syrians. In any case, Lebanon cannot [unintelligible] the refugee issue as a financial and services matter.
This is a catastrophic mistake as the rise of any violence inside Lebanon means that the Mediterranean coast will turn into a platform for refugees fleeing to Europe. It is time for the international community to move forward in approaching security challenges from the political and cultural levels of the countries concerned. The threat that was once Al Qaeda multiplied and expanded. Its dangers increased to include countries that consider themselves politically and militarily immune to it, but the last two years have proven them wrong.
It is true that the state and institutions have no higher responsibility than to maintain security, and that we do not exaggerate when we talk about the society’s need for security. Here I am compelled to repeat the sociological term used by the Lebanese groups in their conflicts i.e., exclusively. The internal and regional security challenges in Lebanon are very exclusive and different from other countries. It is due to its geopolitical position between Israel and Syria, and the fragility of its stability and its institutions vis-á-vis international sponsors and incubators that want it to remain an arena for conflicts and disobedience. In addition to having a low level of national awareness and unity, the price we pay for internal wars and external conflicts was very high. And a quick review of the most important events that have taken place in Lebanon since its independence, in which Lebanese stability and security have been the victims, we find that the absence of political unity or external interference is the root cause of all wars and tensions that are constantly being renewed and generated.
First, civil disunity and sudden security collapse after the events of 1958, the landing of Marines and the intervention of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to prevent civil war that would break out after seventeen years. The civil disunity and security collapse because of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s armaments and bases despite the will of the Lebanese state until the PLO turned into a ruling power without accountability and control. The civil disunity caused by Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories for twenty years, and the capture and arrest of thousands of Lebanese people as well as the Israeli War on Lebanon in 2006. The internal disunity that is intertwined with the fragile security due to the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and some opinion leaders, and the intervention of several countries to make this painful period a cause for the awakening of religious or sectarian feelings as well as making Lebanon the arena for regional, international machinations called the SS Equation and the deprivation of Saudi Arabia and Syria. In light of these prevailing conditions and existing facts, both internally and externally, Lebanon is surrounded by quantitative and qualitative threats due to Israeli policies as well as Takfiri terrorism.
In light of the foregoing, I will let everyone here imagine the magnitude and the nature of these challenges, although as a security institution, and in cooperation and in coordination with the Lebanese Army, we are making extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to maintain security. However, this will be very difficult in the upcoming days as long as the conditions that I have explained remain, and unless there is a real, internal, political and practical support for political, military, and security institutions.
One of the concerns that the U.S. government has at the moment is the perceived attempts by Iran to form a land bridge of subservient group interests all the way from Iran through Iraq, through Syria to the Hezbollah-dominated parts of Lebanon. To what extent do you perceive that to be a threat to the Lebanese state, to Lebanese security interests, and if it happens, what do you think the impact will be on the region?
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
I would like to say that the United States of America is a strong country in its presence in the region, and I cannot dare to say it should worry. If it is worried, it should take action against such things that you mentioned.
My name is [unintelligible] Yousef. I was a U.S. admission director in Lebanon for six years. I fully appreciate, General, your views and [unintelligible]. I notice in your speech you did not mention the security challenges of Hezbollah inside Lebanon. I wonder if you can [unintelligible]. I can say my question in Arabic.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
I have not talked about any specific group or party in Lebanon. I talked about in general terms. If I need to talk about Hezbollah, I need to present a [unintelligible], but I have not touched on groups by names in Lebanon. I talked about the sectarian situation in Lebanon.
Thank you for the presentation. My name is Ahmet Yayla from George Mason University. We know that [unintelligible] from Lebanese groups [are] fighting against ISIS and jihadist terrorist organizations with Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria, including Lebanese Hezbollah. Does your country have connections with them? Are they [unintelligible] and supported by [your government]?
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
The United States also fights ISIS in Syria. Do you believe that the United States is coordinating with Hezbollah in fighting [in] Syria? The answer is definitely not, certainly not. Hezbollah has its own resources. It has its own weapons. It has its own personnel in Syria, and I do not think we need to cooperate with them, and the answer is no, we do not coordinate with Hezbollah in Syria. Thank you.
Thank you, General. Could you give an example of those financial institutions that you describe as political money giving way to corruption in Lebanon?
Do you mean foreign institutions or local?
Well, you said national institutions, so I do not know.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
Yes, there are institutions which are funding different groups. We call it the political money, the political money which is basically a corrupting money. Each and every ethnic or sectarian has its own country that is funding this or that group. I am not going to name those institutions, but it is very well known [that] every sect and every ethnic group in Lebanon is funded by a certain country through certain institutions to corrupt the political process.
Thank you, General, for this very depressing analysis. Despite all of its difficulties, Lebanon has been held up in American political science and European political science as a model as a way of dealing with complex, segmented, severely divided societies, and much better than centralized, semi-unitary states such as Syria. I get the impression you do not agree with that assessment.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim:
No, I do.
Ah, okay, because I was wondering how would you compare it to more unitary states with the sort of centralized national consciousness that you seem to favor, such as Iraq, Syria, or in Africa, we nowadays blame ourselves for having supported centralization, which led to very bloody civil wars and genocides.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
First, let us talk about the [unintelligible] that I caused you. In order to treat or deal with any problem, we have to first acknowledge the problem. Since we have many problems in Lebanon, we are now sitting with friends, so we have to be frank with each other about our problems, and we exchanged thoughts and [unintelligible]. If I do not talk about Lebanon in this way, I will be cheating you. We consider Lebanon an example for mutual living between sects and religions in front of the world. And we are proud of what the Pope, John Paul II said that [unintelligible] the message, not the state. And Lebanon is a message of that meaning. We are an example of the dialogue of civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington said that the world is going toward a clash of civilizations. We think that Lebanon is the place for the dialogue of civilizations. In terms of Iraq and other countries, we have learned that we are not going to be submersed in Lebanese blood anymore. We should not forget the history, so we know how to deal with the future.
The problem of having the Palestinian camps remain in Lebanon is I think understood, but I think it is also unrealistic to expect they will be resettled in Israel, who would view them as a greater threat to national security than they are to Lebanon in their present location, and Jordan would be extremely reluctant to have a large number brought in in addition to those already there, especially given their past conflicts with the PLO and other organizations. Are there any other possibilities that with regard to at least the refugee camps that might advance Lebanese national interests?
What do you mean, like the presence of the camps?
Solutions, any solution, any thing that could be done that would advance solutions in dealing with the Palestinian refugee camps?
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
UN Resolution 194, which we have to respect, basically says those people should go back to their motherland, Palestine, under whatever regime they [return to], Palestine or Israel, that is something to be discussed further, but we have to respect this UN Resolution, which calls for the right to return to their motherland. Thank you very much.
General, most recently, Hezbollah made a deal with ISIS, and transferred ISIS fighters from the Arsal area, which borders Lebanon, to the Iraqi border, and created a big uproar in the Iraqi street and even in Najaf, so I wanted to [hear] his take on this critical, dangerous issue.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim (translated):
The gangs of ISIS have been transported not from Lebanese land. [They have] been transported from the area of Qalamoun inside Syria to Abu Kamal [on] the Iraqi border inside Syria. Both areas are inside Syria, and this maneuver has nothing to do with Lebanon and [nothing to do with] Iraq, also. Thank you very much.