Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- US Ambassador to Lebanon, Michelle Sison, is a career member of the United States Senior Foreign Service. She has a BA in Political Science from Wellesley College and also studied at the London School of Economics. She previously served as US Ambassador to the UAE, before becoming Ambassador to Lebanon in June 2008. In this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ambassador Sison discusses a number of issues including the current political situation in Lebanon, US economic and military aid, Hezbollah, and the ongoing political tensions with Israel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Lebanon is currently witnessing an extremely positive situation with regards to the relationship between its political leaders. To what extent was the US involved in helping reach this state?
[Ambassador Sison] President [Michel] Suleiman has described the new government as being “produced by Lebanon” and this unique regime in Lebanon which has reached the seat of power is a national consensus government. We look forward to cooperating with the new Prime Minister and government, and seek to support this government in implementing policies and procedures that contribute to economic progress and creating new job opportunities for the Lebanese people across a range of programs.
There is a lot of legislation that is being studied by the Lebanese parliament, as well as those being studied by the government, and we see a real opportunity for the government to launch many initiatives in this area.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many are saying that the current political breakthrough in Lebanon is as a result of the détente between Syria and Saudi Arabia, in addition to a similar breakthrough in relations between Lebanon and the US. What do you think?
[Ambassador Sison] Let us look at this question from a different angle. I would like to point out that this current [positive] situation allows us to move forward on a number of sensitive regional issues. As you have seen, US Envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was recently in the region, and he expressed the commitment of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to a comprehensive peace in the region. And comprehensive means all the countries [in the region], and this includes a Palestinian – Israeli peace, a Syrian – Israeli peace, and a Lebanese – Israeli peace. I am looking at the picture in the region from a different angle, and I see an opportunity to reach a comprehensive peace in the region, and Lebanon will play a key role in this, as well the rest of the countries in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is an ongoing fear in Lebanon that the United States will surrender the country to Syrian administration once again. What do you have to say about this?
[Ambassador Sison] A number of Lebanese ministers spoke with US officials and statements were issued from officials in Washington during President Suleiman’s visit to Washington confirming that there will not be any kind of agreement or settlement that comes at the expense of Lebanon, its sovereignty, stability, or security. This is something that we have said many times [before], and the Lebanese people should have confidence in this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There has been talk about a new US policy with regards to Lebanon. What can you tell us about this?
[Ambassador Sison] There is an ongoing US policy to support Lebanon and its sovereignty and prosperity; this is a permanent policy. There were fears in the US last December over the issue of arms smuggling to non-official groups, however at the same time the policy of strengthening and supporting the legitimate and official institutions of the Lebanese state, and the military and security organizations, like the Lebanese army and the internal security forces, is ongoing until they are in control of the entire Lebanese territory. There is another part of our policy that is linked to strengthening the education system in Lebanon and developing the judicial system.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why is the Lebanese army not being equipped with weaponry sufficient to allow it to control all Lebanon’s territory and stand up to Israeli threats? Did the US veto this?
[Ambassador Sison] We have a strong program of support for the Lebanese armed forces which began in 2006, and since then almost $456 million has been spent on training and equipment, and this program is ongoing and will be expanded even further in 2010. There will be further bilateral discussions on this issue next month in Washington [during Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr’s visit]. This package [of training and equipment] reflects the agreed vision on the development of the Lebanese army and its needs over 5 years, which were identified during talks between the Lebanese army and US military officials. We started out on this path in 2008 with the first bilateral military talks, and the needs of the army were identified with regards to border security, internal security, and combating terrorism. These are three paths that reflect the development of the Lebanese army. During US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Lebanon last May we saw [the conclusion of] a large deal for US weapons and equipment, which included sensitive equipment like Cessna airplanes, M-60 tanks, and Hummer vehicles. All of this reflects the vision of the past five years and beyond. You asked a lot of questions about military and security aid, but there are a lot of other projects to talk about.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about these projects?
[Ambassador Sison] I think it is very important that we talk about the economic support that we are providing to Lebanon, for in addition to confirming the rehabilitation of official schools, we are also offering many educational grants. We [also] continue to support [clean] water management projects, because our studies show that almost 50 percent of [clean] water sources may be lost if they are not managed in a good manner, and we are working on a number of sites to ensure this. In cooperation with state institutions and municipalities, we have contributed to providing clean water to around 27,000 people in the al-Shouf and Bekka regions. Over the past 6 months, we have contributed to launching many projects tied to the economy and the municipalities. This is our daily work, despite the fact that the [media] headlines may concentrate more on political and security issues when we look back at what we have done over the past months we see that we have accomplished a lot of useful projects for economic development and job creation in Lebanon. I believe that these policies are long-term and demonstrate the US’s commitment to Lebanon and its development.
By building these institutions that enable the State to provide social services to its citizens, and establishing institutions that provide safety to citizens, we hope that the Lebanese people will no longer have to move towards non-state groups in order to secure their protection and services, for by strengthening the state we are building and investing in Lebanon and we are making it more prosperous and secure for the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can you tell us about the new US security measures with regards to air travel?
[Ambassador Sison] When this event took place on 25 December [Christmas day bombing attempt of a US commercial aircraft] it could have resulted in the deaths of many citizens of different nationalities. For this reason, the US authorities quickly put in place [security] measures to protect the security of all travelers coming from certain countries, and this includes American citizens. This is an effort to ensure our collective safety in the air regardless of nationality.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Lebanon is one of the 14 countries whose citizens, in addition to passengers on flights originating in this country, will be subject to more stringent US security checks. What is the reason for this?
[Ambassador Sison] These are measures that aim to ensure our collective safety when traveling.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do these security measures have any connection to the reports on the increased Al Qaeda movements in Lebanon?
[Ambassador Sison] These measures are related to the incident which took place in December. Their aim is to ensure the safety of passengers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However these measures only apply to specific states, why is Lebanon included on this list?
[Ambassador Sison] I will refer to the previous answer about the objective of issuing these measures, and that is to protect passengers. It is very clear that terrorists in the air will target everybody, regardless of nationality.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However Lebanon objects to these [security] measures and considers this to be unacceptable.
[Ambassador Sison] This position has been expressed, and the Lebanese officials expressed this to a number of US officials who visited Lebanon, and we have also expressed this to Washington. But let me say once again that these measures are to protect us all, and everybody is subject to these measures, including passengers and diplomats.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you fear Al Qaeda’s growth in Lebanon?
[Ambassador Sison] Lebanon, like many other countries, has suffered a lot from terrorism, and there is what happened in 2007 in Nahr al-Bared, and we recall the sacrifices made by the Lebanese army in this area. It is clear that there are risks and challenges in this field.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Hezbollah, do you believe they pose a threat to the US in Lebanon or outside?
[Ambassador Sison] There is no change in our policy towards Hezbollah which is still included on the list of foreign terrorist organizations, and there has not been any change in this policy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You will not cooperate with the Hezbollah ministers included in the government’s new cabinet?
[Ambassador Sison] This is a reflection of this policy which in fact is a US law.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How will this reflect upon US – Lebanese cooperation in the agricultural field considering that the Lebanese Minister of Agriculture is a Hezbollah member?
[Ambassador Sison] According to this law, we cannot directly deal with any member of Hezbollah. There are ongoing programs of cooperation with the Lebanese government including water, education, economy, and civilian programs, and these programs will continue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But no agricultural programs?
[Ambassador Sison] The programs that are present will continue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Lebanese government says that the issue of Hezbollah’s arms is an internal one that can be solved through dialogue. What do you think of this?
[Ambassador Sison] There are two points; firstly the US and other UN Security Council member states deal with this by looking at the UN resolutions on Lebanon, and these say that the arms of any militia must be laid down so that Lebanon is under the [sole] control of the state. As for the dialogue launched by President Suleiman [with Hezbollah], this is something that should be encouraged, and if this dialogue assists in bringing the weaponry which are outside of government control under its control, then this is a good thing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tensions are increasing in the region, and Israel has issued threats against Lebanon; do you fear Israel will launch military operations against Lebanon?
[Ambassador Sison] As I noted previously, there is the issue of arms smuggling which we consider to be a threat to Lebanon, its security, and sovereignty. In July we also saw [the discovery of] Hezbollah weapons caches, while in September 3 missiles were fired into Israel [from Lebanon]. These types of activities are a clear threat to [Lebanese] security and stability. Therefore we go back to emphasizing UN Resolution 1701 that calls for the removal of all illegal weapons from the region south of the Litani River.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are reports that Saudi Arabia has put pressure on the US to urge Israel not to attack Lebanon. Is there any truth to this?
[Ambassador Sison] I have not received any reports of this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we expect an Israeli attack on Lebanon?
[Ambassador Sison] What we must focus on is the necessity of adhering to international resolutions, and to UN Resolution 1701.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Israel has threatened Lebanon saying that if there is another war, it will target official Lebanese institutions and infrastructure. What is your view on this?
[Ambassador Sison] I return to the discovery of [Hezbollah] weapons caches and the firing of rockets [into Israel]; these types of incidents threaten security and stability, and what is important now is to focus on preventing arms smuggling and applying Resolution 1701, making the region south of the Litani River free of illegal weapons.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Lebanese Foreign Minister announced that Resolution 1559 – which supports Lebanese sovereignty and calls for all “foreign forces” to cease interfering in Lebanese internal affairs – has died. What is your view on this?
[Ambassador Sison] The US, like other UN Security Council member states, continues to adhere to this resolution; the full implementation of UN resolutions is very important.