Lebanon will not “hand over” Hezbollah’s weapons, the country’s foreign minister said ahead of a meeting with his Gulf Arab counterparts to mend ties.
Saudi Arabia and its allies suspended diplomatic ties with Lebanon after the airing of comments by the then Information Minister George Kordahi who criticised the Riyadh-led military intervention in Yemen. Kordahi, an ally of Hezbollah, resigned in December.
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“I am not going (to Kuwait) to hand over Hezbollah’s weapons. I am not going to end Hezbollah’s existence, it is out of the question in Lebanon. We are going for dialogue,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib told Al Jazeera, referring to a meeting aimed at mending ties between Beirut and Gulf Arab states.
In a nod to Gulf concerns, Lebanon will however say that the country will not be “a launchpad for activities that violate Arab countries”, according to sources familiar with a draft government letter responding to Gulf terms for improved ties, Reuters reported.
Lebanon is due at the meeting in Kuwait on Saturday to deliver its response to the terms for thawing relations, which have suffered as the Hezbollah armed group, a close ally of Iran, has grown more powerful in Beirut and the region.
Hezbollah supports Iran in its regional struggle for influence with US-allied Gulf Arab states, which say the group has aided the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.
The Yemen war, which is aimed at restoring the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has led to what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, Hezbollah has a powerful militia. Hezbollah fighters have backed pro-Iran allies in the region, including Syria.
The group and its allies also exercise major sway over Lebanese state policy.
The terms delivered to Beirut on January 22 by Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah include setting a time frame for implementing UN Security Council resolutions, among them Resolution 1559 which was adopted in 2004 and calls for the disarmament of non-state militias in Lebanon.
A draft of the government’s response seen by Reuters sidesteps the issue, expressing Lebanon’s respect for UN resolutions “to ensure civil peace and national stability”.
But it mentions no specific UN resolution or any steps to implement them.
Bou Habib told Al Jazeera implementing resolution 1559, which would require Hezbollah’s disarmament, “will take time”.
The Gulf rift has added to the difficulties facing Lebanon as it struggles with a financial crisis that the World Bank has described as one of the sharpest depressions ever recorded.
The crisis is rooted in Saudi Arabia’s uneasiness over the rising influence of Iran in the region, including in Lebanon, once a traditional Saudi ally and recipient of financial assistance from the oil-rich kingdom.
In early January, the leader of the Shia movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, launched a verbal attack against the kingdom, accusing Riyadh of spreading “extremist Islamic ideology”.
The visit to Beirut last week by the Kuwaiti foreign minister was the first since the rift. He said Lebanon must not be a platform for hostile acts or words towards Gulf Arab states, and that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were sympathetic to the Lebanese people.
In the draft letter seen by Reuters, Lebanon commits “verbally and actually” to a policy of dissociation from regional conflicts – a policy adopted by successive governments even as Hezbollah has deployed fighters to Syria.
It also pledges to strengthen measures being taken by Lebanon in cooperation with other Arab states to prevent drug smuggling to Gulf Arab states.
Hezbollah’s adversaries accuse it of links to regional drugs trade – something it denies. The GCC in December called on Lebanon to tighten border controls and take measures to deter drug smuggling via exports into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.