(Abu Arz) Etienne Saqr
At the suggestion and direct support of Dr. Hitti, whom I consider by now to be a trustworthy friend, I went to Cyprus to meet Abu Arz (Etienne Saqre). Abu Arz is a living legend. As with any legend he is also controversial. I read all that I could about him before meeting him, but what I expected was much different from what I experienced. The conclusion of most of my readings was that Abu Arz is an extremist Christian military leader who fell into the state's disgrace for having a relationship with Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth. I found a man who deeply cares and misses his country and wishes to be allowed to go back.
Abu Arz did what others did. When all refused to help Lebanon, Israel did not. In the interview he explains the circumstances as to why he and other Christian leaders started their partnership with Israel. Those who condemn him should look at the bigger picture. Israel was Lebanon's last chance when the West and the East chose to look the other way. Abu Arz is part of Lebanon's recent history and people should pay attention to what he is saying.
It is not that he holds the absolute truth (who does?), but he was part of what happened since the 1970s and he personally knows today's leaders. Maybe this is the reason why he is still condemned to years in prison and death while others who were his friends and allies enjoy high-ranking positions.
Regardless of his views or the ideology of the Guardians of Cedars, people owe him respect for trying his best to defend his homeland. Others in his shoes would have run away as fast as possible or would have sided with the winners. Actually, some did just that.
In my second day in Cyprus I called Abu Arz early in the morning to ask when we could meet for the interview. I was a little bit nervous. After all, he is Abu Arz. He was actually waiting for my call and we established to meet an hour later in a hotel lobby. He sent a driver to bring me there - very courteous. When I arrived, he was in front of the entrance waiting. As we shook hands I felt this was going to be one of the most interesting meetings ever. After sitting down at a table he asked about the publication I work for. I told him more about WSN and about my recent project from Lebanon.
During all this time he kept his sunglasses on. Those who studied psychology in high school or university know that this is a barrier. I trusted that he would lower the guard once he felt comfortable enough talking to me. I was right. Talking about his home country had a positive impact. We talked for hours. If as a military leader he was respected he could just as easily have had a prodigious career as a history professor. One thing I noticed years ago in Lebanon is that history can be rewritten depending upon the person one speaks with. The Orwellian way. It shows that society is divided and that the younger generations know half-truths. Later in the afternoon when we met again, Abu Arz brought a map of Lebanon to illustrate his views. I liked that. No doubt his enthusiasm impressed me.
I left Abu Arz hoping to see him again in the near future. Wouldn't it be a miracle if next time we see each other it would be in Lebanon and not Cyprus? I am glad I met yet another brilliant and brave Lebanese. This time one who gave up everything for his country.
"Lebanon is our sacred cause"
WSN: You are persona non-grata in Lebanon. Actually you were sentenced to prison and death.
ABU ARZ: Because of the Syrians. One sentence was to death and several others to prison time. Because I am a friend to Israel.
WSN: How would you describe your friendship with Israel? What does that mean?
AA: You want the whole story?
WSN: Yes, of course.
AA: I am going to be frank. I am known in Lebanon for saying what I think. I am not a coward who hides what I believe in. I will tell you the whole story. Let us start at the beginning, in 1975. The war started and everyone said it was a civil war. It was not a civil war. I want to tell you something. Of everything they told you in Lebanon, let us say 90% is wrong. They lie. They tell you things in a different way. There is a lot of misunderstanding so people are confused. How can you say about the war that it was a civil one when the Palestinians and the Syrians were involved?
WSN: How did it start?
AA: The war started between Arafat and the PLO and all terrorist organizations around the world that were backing the PLO, and I will give you names. They were against us, the Lebanese and especially against the Christians. It started like this. With Arafat there was all the PLO. There were six or seven organizations, plus the terrorist organizations from other parts of the world. The Red Army was there; Carlos was there, the Italian Brigade, mercenaries from Bangladesh, Pakistan and others. They all came to fight with Arafat against the few Christian people. At that time the army vanished. It went home. We did not have an army like today. And who was backing Arafat? The whole Arab world: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Egypt - all of them.
WSN: Why did they back Arafat? What did they hope to accomplish?
AA: The plan was... You have to know it to understand what is happening today in Lebanon. If you do not know the past, you cannot understand the present. It is all linked together. The whole Arab world supported Arafat. He had billions of dollars in his name and he was giving money to Syria. He was that rich. Where did he get the money? From the Gulf.
WSN: What exactly was the plan?
AA: The plan was to push the Christians out of Lebanon and to settle the Palestinians there. The idea was to have a Palestinian state in Lebanon, and part of Lebanon was to be annexed to Syria.
I cannot forget this. I don't know if anyone told you. Suleiman Frangieh was president in 1976. At that time America was against us.
WSN: Why this policy?
AA: Because Saudi Arabia was the cornerstone of the US foreign policy. John Gunther Dean came from the US on behalf of Ronald Reagan and he met Frangieh. He told him that we could not win the war. He asked, how many Christians are in Lebanon? One million? We are ready to take you all in the US and Canada, to send as many ships as needed. Frangieh said that we were not going to leave and he told Dean that he could go back to his country because we were going to fight.
He called us and he told us what happened. It was a conspiracy. The whole world was against us. The goal of Saudi Arabia was the Islamization of Lebanon. This was the situation. Without an army, Bachir Gemayel, Dany Chamoun and myself had to form an army in 24 hours. It was an army of young people, 16, 17, 20 years old.
We started to fight with hunting weapons. In 1½ years, we had our victory. Everybody was shocked. We were shocked. We did not believe what we did. Some people from the US, let's say from the CIA came to the minister of defense and told some officers who were still there that we could not win the war. It was 1 to 6: One chance for us, six for the Palestinians. Thisis the truth. But the 1 won against the 6. We were defending our land, our homes. We fought with feelings. We have it from our grandfathers. Our ancestors fought for Lebanon. We never fought outside Lebanon in our whole history.
WSN: What happened afterwards?
AA: We won and we cleaned all the Christian areas of Palestinians, especially the Tel Zaatar camp. If you ask in Lebanon who was the main group that liberated Tel Zaatar they'll tell you it was ours.
President Camille Chamoun told me to go and take a small camp and I said no, we'll go to Tel Zaatar. He asked: can you, can you? Nahr el Bared is nothing. It is a small camp. Tel Zaatar was the biggest and the strongest one. At that time we started to establish contacts with Israel.
When the whole world is against you, you don't have any choice but to find somebody to give you weapons. That is how our relations started. The first people who went to Israel were the Kataeb, Bachir Gemayel, Pierre Gemayel, Amine Gemayel, the Tanzim, then Al Ahrar – Dany and Camille Chamoun. I was the last one to go. The last one. They said that they were ready to help us. I met Prime Minister Menachem Begin and I told him to look at our history. We never lost, proof that we are still in Lebanon. If you help us we can win quickly.
If you don't help us we will still win, but only in the long run. I want to know if you have any ambitions in Lebanon. If you want land, water, something. I won't forget this. He was clear and frank. He said, look my friend we don't want anything from Lebanon. You can believe me, this is the policy of Israel. Proof is that they left. But they did not leave the Golan because they want a part of it. In 1976 -1977 we had an agreement. He told me this – we don't have borders with the Arab world, only with Lebanon we have official borders and if we sign an agreement with you we will respect it. We don't want any centimeter of land from Lebanon. We have water. If in the future we will need water we don't have to invade Lebanon. We can make a deal with the Lebanese government and we make projects and all the water instead of going to the sea – you can give part of it to the South, because the South is thirsty and what is left can be for us. But that is in the future and only if the need arises. We don't need to make war for water. I asked him about the Palestinians and he said they didn’t want them in Lebanon because if they were further away it would be better for them. He said that their policy was to put them as far away as possible. As long as they are on the borders they'll continue to make problems. And they did not want to settle them in Lebanon. I asked him about the Syrians. In '77 the Syrians came to Lebanon and we'll go back to this subject. He asked me, why did you let the Syrians in? In return I asked him the same question. Begin said that he told the Americans that Syria was Israel's number one enemy and if Syria comes to Lebanon it would also be dangerous for them. They did not accept it. The Americans said that when the Maronite leaders accept, Israel cannot say no. All the Maronites leaders agreed, so what could Israel do?
WSN: What did you do?
AA: I was the only one who did not accept the Syrians. I held a press conference and afterwards I went to the mountains with all my soldiers and the weapons and I started to fight the Syrians. I was the only one who refused them in '76. Begin told the Americans that if the Maronites want the Syrians, fine. But from the Litani they don't accept the Syrian presence. At the Litani they have to stop. This was the deal. This is why the Syrians did not go to the South.
This is how the relationship began between us. In '76 we finished Tel Zaatar. It was a big victory. We killed many Japanese in Tel Zaatar and near the camp. By that time, they elected Elias Sarkis as president.
When the plan of Saudi Arabia failed through the Palestinians, they called for the Arab Summit in Riyadh in '76 and they decided to send the Arab deterrent forces. Look what kind of bluff! They told the whole world that they sent these forces to stop the civil war in
Lebanon. So there was a civil war between the Palestinians and us. What a pretense! Everyone agreed. They sent the Arabs. What was this force? The biggest lie in history. There were 40,000 Syrian soldiers and a few hundred Arabs from the Golf, Jordan etc. It was a camouflage. After a few months, the latter withdrew and the Syrians remained in Lebanon for 30 years. They were sent by the Saudis and by the whole world. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon was backed by the Arabs, the US and others.
They gave Syria time to destroy Lebanon. To destroy the institutions, to take the money, democracy - everything. 30 years of occupation by our first enemy and no one did a thing.
In 1978 I was still in the mountains. Bachir and Camille Chamoun came to me. Can you imagine that the Greeks asked the Turks to come and stop the war? I was upset. We started to fight the Syrians in 1977 and in 1978 we had the big war. I went to my headquarters in Achrafieh and we surrounded the buildings and started to sniper them. We were listening to them on the radio saying that they wanted to surrender. It was silly of them to go into the towns because they were easy targets. In the end, they decided to quit. The Syrian army’s special forces left the Christian areas.
WSN: The Christian areas of Beirut?
AA: From Achrafieh to the Cedars. They left. But afterwards Hafiz Assad gave the orders to shell the Christian areas day and night. He took his revenge. We the Christians are dynamic people, so we rebuilt everything. We had to clean our areas two times - once of the Palestinians and once of the Syrians for the mistakes made by our politicians. Now we are going to speak about the politicians and how corrupt they are. Especially the Maronites, and I am also a Maronite.
Bachir was making his way to becoming the first man and Israel was in Lebanon and sent us weapons and trained our people. They trained thousands of people, from Kataeb, Ahrar and Guardians of the Cedars. This continued until 1982. In 1982 the Palestinians in Southern Lebanon started to shell Israel. Sharon was Minister of Defense and Begin Prime Minister, so two strong personalities.
It was our last chance to rescue Lebanon from the Syrians and the Palestinians. Israel came and put the Syrians out and they ousted 10,000 Palestinian terrorists from Lebanon. Philip Habib came here and made the negotiations.
WSN: Very tense times. What happened next?
AA: Bachir did not want to continue with Israel because Pierre Gemayel was against Israel. He was afraid of the Arab states. He always said that we shouldn’t open one door and close 22. It was not doors that were kept open; it was hell. The Syrians killed Bachir. Amine came and our relationship stopped. They made the negotiations, the 17 May agreement. It was a deception. It went on for 3 months. David Kimche was director and he came to me every time to brief me about what happened. I told him that Amine would not sign.
When they finished the agreement they sent it to the parliament. The parliament voted for the agreement but I still said he was not going to sign. I was right. Amine let 60 days pass and the agreement was nullified.
Israel had to leave. That was what Syria and Assad waited for. Iran and Hizbollah started operations in Baalbeck against the Israeli army; the US was forced to go back and our dreams were finished.
Syria came back to Lebanon. It was as if Assad had kidnapped a child that was rescued by Israel and after that the child went to Assad and asked: Please kidnap me again. This is what happened from 1982 until recently.
This was the colossal mistake of the Gemayel family. They canceled the 17 May Agreement when the whole parliament, the Muslims before the Christians voted for it. The Knesset voted for it, by majority, in Lebanon it was unanimously. I think all the killings and all the crimes that took place after the 1982 happened because of this big, big mistake. The war would have been finished. So this was our relationship with Israel.
WSN: Tell me about your visit to the US.
AA: I went to the US because Arafat was very strong back then, a very wealthy man paying for PR. Public opinion in the US at the time was saying that Israel may have committed crimes and atrocities. So I went on TV and radio to say that this was not true. They should have come and seen what the Palestinians and the Syrians did in Lebanon. The people they assassinated in Damour and other places. They did not know about those who were massacred. Now they speak only about Sabra and Shatila. It is like in 30 years there were no other atrocities committed other than Sabra and Shatila.
WSN: There were other massacres as well.
AA: I was the first one to enter Shekka, and I saw what they did. In one small kitchen three women were murdered and a small boy killed with a bullet in the head. They then threw the boy from the window. I buried them. Not one journalist was there, no media, nothing.
Another mistake committed by the Gemayels was to send the Lebanese Forces to the Chouf in 1984 to fight against the Druze. It was a great mistake. The Israelis came to us and said that we would lose, they had to leave and that we should not do it. Israel left and the war started. The Palestinians and the Syrians came back to Beirut and it was a catastrophe. We lost the Chouf. In 1985 the fight started between Hobeika and Geagea, between Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces. Why am I telling you that the Maronites are more corrupt than others? Because they are killing each other and now they are preparing for another fight between Geagea and Aoun. They are getting weapons. The Druze, Sunnis and Shias are not doing this. Only the Christians and the Maronites are doing this.
In 1986 - 1987 we formed the new Lebanese Front. Bachir died and Camille Chamoun was still alive and they asked me to join it. I went to the Lebanese Front and after that the problems started between Geagea and Aoun. What was the result? A catastrophe. A brother fighting against a brother, a cousin against a cousin. Aoun lost. Geagea won but after two years he went to jail and Aoun went to France.
Geagea made two mistakes. He accepted the Taef Agreement, which is a disaster for us.
WSN: Why did he do it?
AA: Because he wanted to get the support of all the Christian ministers.
Also, the Patriarch accepted the Taef. Look what kind of idiocy. The Taef Agreement transferred the prerogatives of the president to the prime minister. How could the Maronite Patriarch accept this? Just to tell you about the Maronite leaders, civil and otherwise: All are corrupt. Why are the Christians now weak? It is of their own doing and not because of the Muslims.
Geagea's second mistake was that he sold all the weapons of the Christians.
WSN: To whom?
AA: He sent the tanks to Israel, and the rest was sent to various places in the world. There is a lot of mafia. I don't know where the money is. But all our weapons were gone. We bought them, Bachir and I, with money from our pockets. Geagea came later. Look at Hassan Nasrallah. He is not ready to give away one bullet and this man sold all the weapons of the Christians. This is Samir Geagea.
Now they are fighting for this position, the presidency, which is nothing. Like a chair with only one leg. And they are fighting for one leg.
After this fight between Geagea and Aoun, he came and took our headquarters I was at home under arrest.
WSN: Who put you under arrest?
AA: He sent his people to keep me there. After two months the agreement was that I have to leave. I came to Cyprus. From Cyprus to Israel and from Israel I decided to go to Jezzine. We lost our Christian areas in Beirut but we still had Jezzine and the South. I thought that I should go back and continue to fight against Hizbollah, Syria and its proxies. I built my new headquarters in Jezzine. I sent the majority of my people to the South Lebanon Army (SLA) because I could not pay them.
We started to fight politically and military against Syria and Hizbollah. At that time, Syria asked the Justice Court to give me 7 – 10 years or a life sentence. That's why I have the sentences. In 2000, the Israelis decided to withdraw. This was another mistake. A stupidity.
They decided to leave and I think that it was an agreement between them and Hizbollah. It was obviously an agreement on behalf of the SLA. Hizbollah, the Israelis and the SLA were there and not one bullet was shot. The SLA left and Hizbollah came in. Unbelievable! What a price we all paid.
WSN: Did you have to leave as well?
AA: During the withdrawal I was the last person to leave. I did not want to. At around 11 o'clock in the morning, everybody was out. I was still at home with some of my bodyguards. I did not want to run away and they were calling me to go. The last one to call me was the Maronite Bishop who is now in Jerusalem. He said that it is suicide and that I have to leave. I left at 6 o'clock in the evening.
WSN: What about the people who were part of the SLA?
AA: We have thousands of people in Israel. Some left families in Lebanon and when they want to meet they come to Cyprus. I have a friend, one of my soldiers who had a commanding position, he left his daughter at the age of 10 and now she is 17. What a high price for families to pay. I am here. I refuse to stay in Israel. I went to the Knesset and made a speech. I told them that they stabbed us in the back. I still have the speech. It was a strong one. They were writing in the Israeli papers about the Lebanese refugees. I told them that we don't accept being called refugees; we are your friends and allies. We don't want you to call us like this.
WSN: Why do you think they made the agreement with Hizbollah? It was not in their interest in the long run.
AA: I will tell you why they withdrew:
1) Hizbollah was fighting them and they were losing 1 – 2 soldiers every month;
2) They always said they did not want anything from Lebanon
3) The most important reason: There was a group of four women called the four mothers and this group was calling everyday at the newspapers and all the papers are left side, and the slogan was, get our boys from Lebanon.
This movement became very popular. At this time, the elections in Israel were between Netanyahu and Barak. Barak said that if elected he would withdraw from Lebanon. So they voted for him because of this movement.
Also the commander of the SLA was a bad one, Antoine Lahd. He was running after the money, millions of dollars. He did not care about the soldiers. When you are fighting you either follow the cause and don't get the money, or you follow the money and lose the cause. This man was following the money as the Maronite leaders of Lebanon. They want power and money and they lost the cause.
WSN: It must be very difficult to be away from your country and family.
AA: It is difficult. My family comes here on holidays. This is the story. The sad story of Lebanon. We could have won easily. There was no reason to lose. We lost because of our leaders.
WSN: Since you are here, do you still have connections in the country?
AA: Of course. My people are there. For 20 years they were working underground. They were persecuted by the Syrians. Now we have two offices - in Batroun and in Sin el Fil. We are working, we are active. But I am out of the country and it is not the same thing.
WSN: How do you explain this long-term crisis in Lebanon?
AA: Lebanon has more than one enemy. The primary enemies of Lebanon are the politicians, Christians, Muslims and Druze. Those who are now the majority and vocal against Syria were the puppets of Syria. All of them. Abdel-Halim Haddam, the former Vice President of Syria said on more than one occasion that Hariri was the Foreign Minister of Syria. It is true. When the US decided to put Hizbollah on the terrorist list, Hizbollah asked for Hariri's help and he wentto Europe – in particular to France, and he did his best to impede the Europeans to do as the Americans did. Hizbollah is not on the EU terror list. It is because of Hariri and they killed him. Now his son is against Syria. As for our Christians, Boutros Harb is now a candidate for president and he was begging Syria to nominate him as president.
WSN: What about Nassib Lahoud?
AA: He is a weak man.
WSN: And General Aoun?
AA: I do not think he has a chance. I see that we'll have two governments. What kind of agreement can they reach? The conflict is very deep. Everybody is in it for himself, to keep his power, army etc. If they find a neutral one it will be worse.
WSN: Why do you think so?
AA: He won't be able to do anything. He will try to please everybody, but not Lebanon. You want to please Nasrallah, Aoun and Hariri, so what can you do? We need somebody to please Lebanon, to rebuild Lebanon to disarm the Palestinians and Hizbollah. We need a statesman not a politician. There is a significant difference. A man of courage, an extraordinary man for an extraordinary crisis. If we fail to find him the crisis will go on for years to come. We need a De Gaulle.
We have a system in Lebanon with a lot of corruption. We have feudalism, the same people in high positions. They work for their own well being, not for that of Lebanon. The proof is that the country is dying.
Seniora has been head of government for two years now. What has he achieved? Nothing. Before they said that Syria is the problem and that's why they cannot fix electricity, the water problem, the high price of the mobile services, etc. Syrians are out. What did they do? Are the
Syrians still taking money from the Lebanese? If they aren't, then why are these high costs not being reduced?
WSN: What is your opinion about the EU and the US offer to mediate the crisis?
AA: It is good. But they cannot do what the government is not doing. The government should ask the army to protect the border with Syria or ask the UN to do it. They do not dare ask for this.
WSN: Are they still afraid of Syria?
AA: Of course. No one asks where Fatah al-Islam got the weapons from. The Holy Spirit?
WSN: Any solution in sight? What can the people do?
AA: We have the best people in the world, but they don't have real leaders. They have fake ones. People don't make the rules. They need a real leader to take the right actions. There is anxiety and fear because you don't know where a bomb may explode next. People are trying to survive.
WSN: Can a solution be found when Lebanon has parliamentary elections?
AA: No, because the same people will come back. Maybe the situation will change once the context in the region changes. When Hariri was prime minister he impoverished the country. He claimed things were working well. We now have a huge debt. Where did the money go? Who is to blame for this? If you ask me, it is the same plan today. Get the money, impoverish the country, push out the Christians and settle the Palestinians.
WSN: Would the Shias accept it?
AA: I don't think so, but if they lose the war they will be forced to accept. Seems like an endless problem unless we have this man who can say no to Syria, no to Saudi Arabia, no to Iran and yes to Lebanon.
WSN: The ideology of your party, the Guardians of Cedars (www.gotc.org) speaks of Lebanon as being Lebanese. Could you brief me about it?
AA: We are not Arabs. Last year my people in Lebanon had a press conference saying exactly that. The next day Siniora sent them (a poet, lawyer and a journalist) to jail for two months and two days because they said Lebanon is not an Arab state. This was their crime. It was nothing they could accuse them of, but still they did not release them. The judge was pressured not to release them. Our big enemy is Arabism. Arabism is the first step toward the Islamization of Lebanon. The ambition of the Saudis is not only to Islamicize Lebanon but also the whole world. I read last week that in Germany 4,000 people converted to Islam. They plant these mosques everywhere and they send preachers to incite the people to Jihad. This was so in Indonesia, so was Malaysia. Who was behind the Islamic movement from day one? They went to the US and hit them inside. You see enemies such as Iran and Syria. But Saudi Arabia is hidden.
WSN: But it is there?
AA: It is strongly there.
WSN: Aren't the Christians aware of it?
AA: If they send them money, they won't bother looking at or thinking about the big picture. This is why I am out. If I go now they'll kill me the next day. If I say there what I am saying to you, they'll kill me the next day. And if I go and won't say it, I am not myself.
They accuse me of being a friend to Israel but what more did I do than the Gemayel family or the Chamoun family? I did what I did and it was to defend all of us. What's wrong with that? Someone tries to kill you. Where do you go? We were trying to defend ourselves at any cost. Ask for weapons from the Arabs? They sent weapons to kill us.
This was the only way and the Israelis were the only people who wanted to help us. Begin asked, where are the Christian nations, the big nations to help you? They were not persecuted and don't know how that is. But we (Jews) were persecuted and we know the meaning of it. We feel it and that's why we are going to help you. Go and fight for Lebanon, he said.
WSN: What did the Vatican do?
AA: They sent us their blessings. They said they were praying for us. We needed money and weapons. The Patriarch did the same thing. A very sad story.
WSN: It looks like a complicated story.
AA: Its simple. It’s not complex.
You have Lebanon here, the Arabs want to annex Lebanon, and for that they had to push the Christians out, this was the plan since 1975. They sent Arafat and he failed. They sent Syria for 30 years and they destroyed Lebanon. And now the plan is going on with these politicians who are loyal to all except Lebanon.
We have to get back to our national cause. This is a sacred cause for me and for others. We have to do everything we can for it. We cannot stop. This is our country.
WSN: Thank you sir for meeting me and for sharing your thoughts.
(Abu Arz) Etienne Saqr