BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman said Lebanon will no longer serve as a place to defend any regime or state – in a clear allusion to war-ravaged Syria, which had dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades before it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005.
Meanwhile, Sleiman found himself locked in a tacit war of words with Hezbollah, which rejected the president’s recent remarks in which he distinguished between Hezbollah as a political party and a resistance group fighting against Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.
Speaking to Lebanese expatriates in Uruguay as part of his current South American tour, Sleiman said: “We will no longer allow Lebanon to become a platform to send messages to anyone or a place to protect any regime or state except Lebanon and Lebanon only.
“Lebanon has paid a high price for its freedom and democracy, and you were the first to pay such a hefty price after your parents and grandparents emigrated looking for freedom and a decent living,” he added, according to a statement released by the president’s press office Sunday.
Sleiman pointed out that this decision was taken by rival political leaders during a National Dialogue session in June and was contained in the “Baabda Declaration” designed to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts, especially the 19-month-old unrest in neighboring Syria.
“We have succeeded in neutralizing Lebanon from all struggles surrounding it. We do not want to interfere in the affairs of others, nor we do want anyone to interfere in our affairs,” he said.
Syria was the main power broker in Lebanon for nearly three decades until it withdrew its troops from the country under local and international pressure in April 2005, two months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. March 14 parties have accused Syria of responsibility for Hariri’s killing, a charge which Damascus has repeatedly denied.
Referring to the Arab Spring uprisings that have so far managed to oust leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Sleiman said: “We are advocates of peace and democracy. We wish Arab states stability and democracy without any violence or foreign intervention. We hope that [Arab] states and governments will respond to the will of the peoples by agreeing on a political system that can bring good to them and others.”
Sleiman said that the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world would eventually serve Lebanon’s interest in the future.
“Lebanon has been a democratic country for more than 70 years. But it was unable to practice this democracy in a proper way because of the absence of democracy and a rotation of power in the states surrounding it,” he said.
Referring to Lebanese parties that forged political alliances with Syria and other Arab countries, Sleiman said: “Unfortunately, some political groups in Lebanon established links with neighboring states. For this reason, Lebanon was turned into an arena for a struggle among the neighboring Arab regimes. But this matter has come to an end and Lebanon is no longer serving as such an arena. Lebanese politics has become confined to the local scene and is not linked to any other matter.”
Meanwhile, a senior Hezbollah official said that the party’s arms were directed against Israel and were not intended for domestic purposes, rejecting attempts to distinguish between Hezbollah as a political party and as a resistance movement.
The remarks by Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem came apparently in response to Sleiman’s statement last week that Lebanon should strip Hezbollah and other armed groups of weapons used internally, while stressing that arms used in the conflict with Israel should come under his defense strategy.
“We don’t have arms for the resistance and arms used for other purposes. We don’t have arms to face Israel and arms for domestic bickering,” Qassem said Saturday during a graduation ceremony at UNESCO Palace in Beirut. “In Lebanon, there is one party called Hezbollah. We don’t have a military wing and a political wing. We don’t have a Hezbollah and a resistance party. Hezbollah is a political party and a resistance party.
“Therefore, these divisions which some are trying to propagate are rejected and do not exist,” Qassem said.
“The commanders and members in Hezbollah as well as our various capabilities are in the service of the resistance. We have nothing but the resistance as a priority,” he added.
Qassem acknowledged that Hezbollah was stockpiling “tons of arms” to face any possible Israeli attack on Lebanon.
Referring to last week’s explosion at a Hezbollah arms depot in the eastern village of Nabi Sheet that killed three party fighters, Qassem said: “Yes, the arms in Nabi Sheet are part of the arsenal to face Israel. Arms in any depot or training camps are linked to the resistance. We do not have arms aimed at undermining stability.”
During his visit to Argentina last Thursday, Sleiman said resistance arms fall under the “defense strategy that is being worked out at the National Dialogue and are to be used only to defend Lebanon against Israeli aggression and only to support the Lebanese Army in line with a political decision.
“While arms that are being used domestically [in internal conflicts] are forbidden. Be they with Hezbollah or the Salafists or others, they [weapons] must be stripped,” he added.
During the last National Dialogue session last month, Sleiman presented a blueprint for a national defense strategy which would place Hezbollah’s arms under the command of the Lebanese Army to defend the country against any Israeli attack.