Prime Minister Saad Hariri has revealed that he and President Michel Aoun had allowed Islamic State jihadists to “cross the border” into Syria as part of a ceasefire agreement, while noting that “their transfer in buses to eastern Syria was the decision of Hizbullah and the Syrians.”
“What’s important to us was the safety of our troops,” Hariri told France’s Le Monde daily when asked how “300 IS fighters managed to leave the Qalamun region safely.”
“A major anti-IS battle occurred in 2014 and a number of soldiers were abducted and killed by IS. We didn’t know where they were buried and we did not want anyone else to get killed, that’s why we tightened our siege and they (IS militants) suggested negotiations,” Hariri explained.
“They gave us information about the location of the soldiers’ bodies and, in return, these fighters were able to leave Lebanese territory without fighting, along with their families,” he added.
Told that Hizbullah played “a bigger role than the army in the Arsal battles in July and in Qalamun in August,” Hariri said: “This is what Hizbullah is claiming but in fact it was the Lebanese army that played the bigger role and did everything.”
“I know how the army carried out its offensive… What’s important to us is that IS has no presence in Lebanon anymore,” the premier added.
The controversial truce deal was negotiated between IS and Hizbullah, which fought a week-long offensive against IS on Syria’s side of the border, at the same time as the Lebanese army’s assault on Lebanon’s side of the frontier.
The agreement has been criticized inside Lebanon, as well by the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq and especially by Baghdad, which protested that the jihadists were being brought to its doorstep. Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has argued that the deal was necessary to acquire information about the fate of Lebanese soldiers taken hostage by IS three years ago.
Separately, Hariri was asked about Israel’s allegations that Iran has built secret Hizbullah-run missile factories in Lebanon.
“The Israelis know very well that there are no missile factories in Lebanon. They are used to launching these disinformation campaigns. They claim that Hizbullah is in control of Lebanon and this is not true. Hizbullah has a presence — it is present in the government and it enjoys support in the country — but this does not mean that Hizbullah is in control of entire Lebanon,” Hariri emphasized.
“Our problem with Israel is that its leaders always talk about war and security but never about peace,” Hariri added.
Asked whether Syrian refugees in Lebanon should “return to their country,” the prime minister said: “In Lebanon, some are saying that we should restore ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Look at Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. These countries have ties with the Syria regime but despite that, refugees there have not returned to Syria.”
“They will not return home as long as the current regime is present there. As long as I’m not given a green light from the U.N. for a safe return by the refugees, I will not do anything,” Hariri added.