Joyce Karam/The National: Lebanon spymaster holds ‘positive’ US talks on intel sharing and hostages/جويس كرم/ذا ناشيونال: اللواء عباس إبراهيم “سيد التجسس اللبناني” يجري محادثات أمريكية “إيجابية” حول تبادل المعلومات الاستخباراتية والرهائن

89

Lebanon spymaster holds ‘positive’ US talks on intel sharing and hostages
Joyce Karam/The National/October 18/2020
جويس كرم/ذا ناشيونال: اللواء عباس إبراهيم “سيد التجسس اللبناني” يجري محادثات أمريكية “إيجابية” حول تبادل المعلومات الاستخباراتية والرهائن

Over four days, Gen Abbas Ibrahim met with officials from the White House, State Department and CIA.

Lebanon’s head of General Security Abbas Ibrahim is hopeful of boosting intelligence sharing with the US and working on releasing more hostages held in Iran and Syria, he told The National on a four-day visit to meet officials from the White House, State Department and the CIA.

Mr Ibrahim, 61, heads Lebanon’s most powerful security service after the military and has a reputation as a savvy negotiator who has helped secure the release of multiple US residents and nationals as well as brokered deals with extremists like ISIS and militant Palestinian factions to end bouts of fighting in Lebanon.

Despite having a close relationship with Hezbollah, Mr Ibrahim received a warm welcome from the Trump administration. On this visit, he met with National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, director of CIA Gina Haspel and Undersecretary of State David Hale, although American officials were cagey about the visit.

The meetings reinforce the gradual change in US-Lebanon relations over the last 15 years. For decades before Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus took the lead in co-ordinating with the US intelligence on matters related to Beirut and on freeing hostages. But now, Mr Ibrahim sees young but growing relations with the US on intelligence sharing.

“We have a good working relationship with the Americans, and I am hopeful,” Mr Ibrahim said.

Mr Ibrahim was involved last year in securing the release of US national Sam Goodwin from Syria and of US permanent resident Nizar Zakka from prison in Iran.

Austin Tice, an American journalist kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and believed to be in the custody of Damascus, is a top priority for the Trump administration. In March, US President Donald Trump sent a letter Syrian President Bashar Al Assad urging him to release Mr Tice.

“Syria, please work with us. We would appreciate you letting him out,” Mr Trump said later.

Mr Ibrahim is seen as a key mediator on the Austin Tice file and was known to be in Damascus in May where he said he was discussing cross border security and smuggling.

But the Lebanese spy head refused to give any details on the Tice case saying, there “are no confirmations about his status” including whether or not he is alive.

Mr O’Brien told The National in April last year that the US “is confident” Mr Tice is alive.

But the Assad government has not responded to Mr Trump’s letter. Diplomatic sources told The National that full US withdrawal from Syria is one demand that Damascus is mulling in return for releasing Tice.

Randa Slim, director of track two dialogue at the Middle East Institute, described Mr Ibrahim as a key interlocutor on the issue of hostages.

“Mr Ibrahim is in a position to deliver on the US hostages file in both Syria and Iran,” she said. “He has excellent relations with Hezbollah leaders, and has woven, over the years, a web of personal relationship and contacts with senior Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian officials in the intelligence and political circles.”

Mr Ibrahim received an award on Friday from the Foley Foundation for his efforts to help release hostages.

Mr Ibrahim’s visit also comes just days after the US-led talks between Israel and Lebanon got underway to agree on the maritime border between the two countries.

The Lebanese official, however, said that the talks were “a long shot” as Israel has refused to concede to Lebanon’s sovereignty over the disputed 860-square-kilometre area of sea between the lines each side feels is the correct boundary.

The issue has taken on an urgency as it lies near areas where Israel has found proven oil and gas reserves and part of the disputed zone lies in a bloc that Lebanon recently licensed for oil and gas exploration.

Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr Ibrahim’s visit was a win for Lebanon’s political elite, backed by Hezbollah

“It’s a good move to break the isolation on the Lebanese government and political elite,” Ms Ghaddar told The National, referring to recent US sanctions on Beirut officials as well as tough talk on the need to see reforms to address the country’s crises and demands of protesters on the streets.

“This elite – mainly Hezbollah and its allies – are trying to use talks with the US in order to avoid more sanctions before the [US] elections. They hope that with the negotiations, and Mr Ibrahim coming to the US, they might be able to weather the storms (sanctions and pressure) until the elections on November 3.”

As Lebanon’s anti-government protests enter their second year, Ms Ghaddar said the warm welcome Mr Ibrahim received was a snub to those in the streets.

“The US should continue supporting the Lebanese people, continue pressure on Lebanese officials, and avoid sending conflicting messages.”

US officials have been discreet about Mr Ibrahim’s visit and repeated requests for comment to the White House, State Department and CIA were not returned but no agency denied the meetings.