BEIRUT: Hezbollah and the opposition March 14 coalition traded barbs Sunday over each side’s alleged involvement in the 19-month-old bloody conflict in Syria, in a development reflecting the reverberations of the turmoil next door on the country’s stability.
Further adding to the long-simmering tension between the two sides over the Syria crisis was a Hezbollah-dispatched reconnaissance drone that flew over Israel, triggering a harsh response from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other March 14 politicians who warned that the aircraft episode might drag Lebanon into a military conflict with the Jewish state.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc, said Sunday the Iranian-made drone was launched over sensitive areas in Israel – such as the Jewish state’s gas and oil facilities and atomic reactor plant in Dimona – at Iran’s behest and would involve Lebanon in regional and international conflicts.
“[Hezbollah’s] action shows that it was an Iranian decision ... No doubt this action needs techniques that are available only in Iran,” Siniora told visitors at his office in Hilaliyeh, a neighborhood in the southern city of Sidon.
“It was an Iranian action that implicated Lebanon in regional and international struggles and consequently, made us in Lebanon a platform for the exchange of messages,” he said.
He warned that Iran’s using Lebanon to exchange messages with Israel might lead to a situation with unforeseeable consequences.
Iranian military officials have warned that Hezbollah would retaliate against Israel if the Jewish state attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Although he praised the drone flight over the sea and into Israel’s airspace as “a military and technical achievement,” Siniora said: “But this action in my belief constituted a provocation against Israel because as [Hezbollah leader] Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah indicated, the drone flew over waters overlooking the coasts of the occupied territories and over land, south of the occupied territories in Israel.
“Therefore, there are some who point to an issue relating to the gas and oil installations on the occupied territories’ coasts and also the Israeli atomic reactors in Dimona. This in itself amounts to a declaration of war,” Siniora added.
Siniora criticized Nasrallah for not consulting with the government before sending the drone over Israel.
“We are proud of any achievement against the Israeli enemy. But for this action to be taken by Hezbollah and for Sayyed Nasrallah to announce it without consulting with the Lebanese government is [an act] that involves Lebanon in military operations and probably Israeli reactions against Lebanon that threaten the national security of Lebanese citizens.”
Despite the government’s dissociation policy on developments in Syria, Siniora said: “We find that Hezbollah is not only implicating Lebanon in the conflict in Syria, but also in the midst of regional and international struggles concerning Iran and Iran’s nuclear program and in its [Hezbollah’s] role in the developments in Syria.”
Siniora said that the drone flight was a clear violation of U.N. Resolution 1701, which calls on the Lebanese and Israeli sides to maintain calm on the border.
Hariri also criticized Hezbollah’s decision to send a drone into Israel, describing it as an “uncalculated adventure.” Taking a direct swipe at Nasrallah, he said Lebanon was not an “unmanned drone.”
“I welcome President Michel Sleiman’s approach that reflects deep concern that is shared by all of the Lebanese with regard to the uncalculated adventures Hezbollah wants to drag Lebanon into,” Hariri said in a statement published by An-Nahar newspaper Saturday.
Hariri was referring to Sleiman’s statement Friday in which he said that the drone incident underscored the need for a defense strategy that benefits from the resistance party’s strength. Sleiman has put forward a proposal for a national defense strategy that would benefit from Hezbollah’s arsenal and subordinate the decision of its use to the Lebanese Army.
Hariri urged Lebanese to stand against attempts to endanger the country through acts of involving them in the Syria crisis or violating international resolutions.
“During these delicate hours in the region, all loyal Lebanese and those who oppose endangering Lebanon’s national interests ... whether its commitment to international resolutions, particularly Resolution 1701, or involving Lebanese [in the Syria crisis] by turning the act of fighting alongside the Syrian regime into a major part of the agendas of the resistance and jihad, should bear their historic responsibilities so that everyone realizes once and for all that Lebanon is not a unmanned drone,” he said.
Hariri has repeatedly called on Hezbollah to surrender its arms to the state, saying it is an obstacle to political life in the country. Last month, Hariri accused Hezbollah of sending arms and fighters to Syria.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem accused Hariri’s Future Movement of intervening in the Syrian conflict by sending money and arms to anti-regime rebels fighting to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, the accusation was quickly rejected by Future MPs.
“The adventure of Hariri and the Future [Movement] has so far resulted in the killing of 33,000,” Qassem told a Hezbollah rally Saturday, referring to estimates by monitors and activists of the death toll so far in Syria. He warned that the Future Movement’s alleged involvement in the Syrian conflict would cause disasters in Lebanon.
“I say to Saad Hariri and the Future party: Have mercy on Lebanon and its people and have mercy on Syria and its people. Stop financing and arming the [Syrian] opposition and giving shelter to some armed groups from Turkey and implicating Lebanon in the details of the Syrian crisis,” Qassem said.
For their part, Future MPs in the north rejected Qassem’s charges that their movement was funding and arming the Syrian opposition.
“These accusations are big lies. The Future party does not intervene at all in Syrian affairs,” Dinniyeh Future MP Ahmad Fatfat told reporters after a meeting of seven lawmakers held at the house of MP Mohammad Kabbara in Tripoli.
Fatfat said the Future Movement’s clear stance on the Syrian crisis was linked to three major matters: political support, media support and providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
“Aside from this, we don’t have any security intervention,” he said. Fatfat added that the Future Movement has called for the Lebanese Army deployment along the Lebanese-Syrian border to prevent the smuggling of arms, gunmen or equipment from Syria to Lebanon and vice versa.
In an interview with MTV Sunday night, Fatfat said Hezbollah’s sending the drone over Israel was aimed at covering up its involvement in the Syrian conflict. “Hezbollah is no longer a resistance party. It is a party loyal to Assad.”
Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel warned of the consequences of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict on the security situation in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah considers [itself] to be carrying out a jihadist duty there [in Syria]. What if some Syrians decided to carry out a counter-jihadist duty in Lebanon? What shall we do then?” he said.
Syrian opposition forces have repeatedly accused Hezbollah of supporting Assad’s regime forces in their crackdown against rebels. According to rebels, members of Hezbollah have died in Syria’s clashes before being returned to Lebanon for burial. The party, however, has denied such accusations.