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Cablegate: Lebanon: With Centcom Acting Commander, Defmin

VZCZCXRO4566
OO RUEHAG RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHLB #0687/01 1352123
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 142123Z MAY 08
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1870
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 2284
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 2588
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 BEIRUT 000687

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR NEA/FO, NEA/ELA
ALSO FOR IO A/S SILVERBERG AND PDAS WARLICK
USUN FOR KHALILZAD/WOLFF/KUMAR/PHEE
NSC FOR ABRAMS/SINGH/YERGER/GAVITO

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/13/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV PTER PINR ASEC UNSC EAIR SA IR LE
SUBJECT: LEBANON: WITH CENTCOM ACTING COMMANDER, DEFMIN
MURR ARGUES FOR LAF SUPPORT

REF: A. BEIRUT 618
B. BEIRUT 681

Classified By: Charge d'Affaires a.i. Michele J. Sison for reasons 1.4
(b) and (d).

SUMMARY
--------

1. (C) Acting CENTCOM Commander and CENTCOM J5 Policy and
Planning Director Major General Allardice, in a May 13 visit
to Beirut, met with Deputy Prime Minister and Defense
Minister Elias Murr to discuss support for the LAF. There
has been a shift in Murr's thinking since we last saw him
three days ago on May 11: he now insists that the current
majority must maintain control of the Ministry of Defense in
any new government, regardless of whether it retains the
majority. Earlier this week we had assessed that control of
the Ministry of Interior was essential to Murr and to his
father, wily political leader Michel Murr (since the Ministry
of Interior oversees electoral law, voter registration, and
the Internal Security Forces). However, Murr was clear that
Hizballah could not put a Hizballah-sympathizer at the head
of the Ministry of Defense.

2. (C) Murr's priority now is to have a "friendly" Defense
Minister who will influence the Lebanese Armed Forces' (LAF)
strategy, and ideally, control over the LAF and LAF G-2
(military intelligence), and then work towards summer 2009
parliamentary election victories. This message was conveyed
to visiting Central Command Acting Commander Dempsey so that
the U.S. will be willing to provide up-armored humvees, night
vision goggles, body armor, and upgrading the Huey UH-I to
Huey UH-II.

3. (C) Murr outlined three scenarios for the region in which
Hizballah is weakened and the LAF must be strengthened in
order to assume Hizballah's weapons. First, an international
military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; second, a
new round of fighting between Israel and Hizballah in which
Hizballah is defeated; third, a longer-term proposition
whereby the LAF is gradually strengthened in the hopes that
it will stand up to Hizballah "in better days." Regardless
of the scenario, Murr concluded, the stronger the LAF is, the
weaker Hizballah will be. End summary.

VISIT IS A DEFIANCE
TO HIZBALLAH
-------------------

4. (C) Acting Commander for Central Command Lieutenant
General Martin Dempsey, CENTCOM J5 Policy and Planning
Director Major General Allardice, LTC Paddock, and POLAD
Ensher, in Beirut for the day, and the Charge visited Defense
Minister Elias Murr on May 14. A defiant Murr started the
meeting with a photo op, telling Dempsey that the pictures
will be Murr's response to al-Manar's (Hizballah's TV
station) accusation that Murr is a "puppet of the U.S." Murr
thanked Dempsey for incurring risks to visit him. (Note:
Approximately 200 Hizballah members have stationed themselves
around Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun's residence, a few
hundred meters down the street. End note.)

EXPLAINING HIZBALLAH'S
AIRPORT CAMERA STRATEGY
-----------------------

5. (C) There is not an army in the world that can conduct a
coup d'etat in 12 hours without significant preparation, Murr
began. The surveillance cameras that were placed at the
airport by Hizballah (Ref A), used in conjunction with
radios, were part of a larger plan by Hizballah to shift the
balance of power in the government, he said. For previous
political assassinations, he explained, Hizballah has
typically spent two to three months monitoring its target,
and then the last few weeks in closer scrutiny before
attacking.

6. (C) Murr noted that the airport cameras, stolen in
September 2007 from Transportation Minister Safadi's private
aviation business office and installed on April 23, 2008,

BEIRUT 00000687 002 OF 004


were positioned to watch private jet traffic. They were
providing intelligence for an imminent assassination attempt.
He believes that March 14 Sunni leader Saad Hariri (whose
name is often mentioned as the next prime minister) and
current Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (also Sunni) were the
top targets, and he himself was next on Hizballah's list. He
noted that all three had been likely to travel in the next
few weeks.

7. (C) The coup indicates that Hizballah wanted to do
something to bring down the Sunnis, Murr said. If Saad were
killed, the Hariri dynasty would be over, and Sunni fighters
would take to the street. He continued, Hizballah would have
a reason to use arms to defend itself because it will have
pointed to Al Qaeda as the mastermind of the assassination.
Murr supported this hypothesis by revealing that he had
received reports that Al Qaeda was preparing an attack on a
plane over Beirut International Airport. Murr highlighted
that these intelligence reports were coming from the LAF G-2
(military intelligence) office in Dahiyeh, the southern,
predominately-Shia suburb of Beirut. Murr concluded that
someone was feeding false information to the G-2 to prepare
the atmosphere.

8. (C) An alibi was further established when Al Qaeda's
second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is purportedly
financed by Iran, announced last month that Lebanon "will
play a pivotal role in the Islamists' fight," Murr posited.
Then, when the Cabinet responded to the cameras on May 5 by
transferring the head of airport security, Hizballah seized
the opportunity to launch its coup.

ASSESSING THE
LAF'S PERFORMANCE
-----------------

9. (C) "The LAF did not do the job like it needed to," Murr
assessed. He said that the army cannot enter into a civil
war because it would be split. Another weak point, according
to Murr, is that the LAF's current commander, General Michel
Sleiman, is also the only presidential candidate. Once a
general has his eye on becoming the president, Murr said, he
can no longer take a stand against any single group. "He
will play the hero o the end," Murr continued. Sleiman was
playingtwo roles, Murr relayed, he was first trying to make
a balance between the victorious Shia and the defeated
Sunnis, while also serving as an army commander afraid of
Hizballah and of splitting the army.

10. (C) He qualified his assessment of the LAF by recounting
past LAF achievements, most notably Nahr al-Barid, and
concluded that the LAF can be counted on again, if the
internal political process is functional. He added that its
future success is further guaranteed if the next LAF G-2
Intelligence Director, LAF commander, and Defense Minister
are allies.

11. (C) "I can't say I am disappointed (with the LAF's
performance) because I always knew what I could expect.
Besides, every army goes through a turbulent period," Murr
said. "I could take one of two approaches now. I could
criticize the LAF and explain its faults to the world. Or, I
could acknowledge that the LAF had a difficult moment, and
now it is time to equip, train, and develop a forward-looking
program."

DISAPPOINTMENT WITH THE U.S.
----------------------------

12. (C) Murr relayed that he had heard from politicians, LAF
officers, and ordinary citizens that they are disappointed in
what they see as a lack of support from the U.S. Some
believe they have "been left in Saigon," Murr added. He said
that he himself had not been expecting more because he
understands how the "U.S. agenda can't move according to Saad
and Walid Jumblatt's agendas." Nevertheless, I am realistic
and with my feet on the ground -- it is time to move forward,
he declared.

GIVE THE LAF HOPE,
MORALE, TIME

BEIRUT 00000687 003 OF 004


------------------

13. (C) Murr urged Dempsey (whose next meeting was with
Sleiman) to give the impression to Sleiman that the U.S. is
very serious about Lebanon and will continue to train and
equip the LAF. Tell him that this "incident" will not change
U.S. policy towards the LAF, Murr encouraged. If the LAF
doesn't have hope, it will go to Hizballah, he warned. Right
now, we need to have hope, a positive morale, and more time
in order to survive and ultimately win, Murr rallied.

DRUZE STOOD THEIR
GROUND AGAINST
HIZBALLAH
-----------------

14. (C) He remarked on the solid performance of the Druze
fighting Hizballah in the Chouf, saying that "lightly-armed
boys" were able to defeat the fighters who held off Israel in
2006. Adding that the leader of Hizballah's troops in the
south (which specifically fought Israel) was killed by the
Druze, Murr concluded that Hizballah is less than what it
appears, though still strong.

SCENARIOS IN WHICH THE LAF
STANDS UP TO HIZBALLAH
--------------------------

15. (C) In response to Dempsey's interest in what would
prompt the LAF to stand up to Hizballah, Murr outlined three
possible regional scenarios which would result in a weakened
Hizballah, and consequently enable the LAF to take control.
First, he described, Iran announces it has nuclear weapons
and the international community conducts military strikes
taking out its nuclear facilities. Additionally, the U.S.
(or international community) threatens or attacks Syria.
Hizballah is consequently weakened without its power and
funding sources, and the GOL will feel emboldened to discuss
Hizballah's arms.

16. (C) Second, Murr continued, war could break out again
between Israel and Hizballah, and Hizballah is defeated. The
LAF takes over in the south and the GOL is again ready to
discuss disarming Hizballah. Murr commented that he did not
see the likelihood of this scenario.

17. (C) The third scenario takes a long-term approach during
which the LAF is strengthened step-by-step while "waiting for
better days." Murr cautioned that Hizballah is also
brainstorming now about its strategy, and this long-term
approach could be a reinforcement race. "The best day for
Lebanon will be when we move Hizballah from a resistance
movement to a group of gangsters." The goal of this scenario
is to wait until the dynamics have changed to favor the GOL
and the LAF, and then the empowered GOL and LAF would take on
Hizballah. However, Murr warned, this strategy would take a
long time.

18. (C) In these three scenarios, the premise is for
Hizballah to be weakened by external events while at the same
time, the LAF has been strengthened. With GOL resolve, the
LAF can then take on Hizballah. When asked whether the LAF
would use attack helicopters, if we provided them, against
Hizballah, Murr responded, "The stronger the LAF is, the
weaker Hizballah is."

MINISTRY OF DEFENSE
MOST IMPORTANT
-------------------

19. (C) Having argued that a strong LAF could ultimately
stand up to Hizballah, Murr continued laying out his
strategy, focusing on the GOL's role. Murr said that Saad,
who could be the next PM, is inexperienced and would need
strong ministers in key positions in the new government, "or
else he will fail." (He took himself out of the running,
claiming, "I'm tired!") (Comment: We don't believe this for
a minute. End comment.)

20. (C) Murr seemed to accept the ten-ten-ten formula for
dividing the cabinet, if ten seats are for "strong" majority

BEIRUT 00000687 004 OF 004


candidates and the president's ten are for "respectable,
strong" individuals. According to Murr, the opposition is
determined to install its own people as the ministers of
defense and interior so "there's no one who can say 'no' to
any strategy to strengthen the LAF." He explained that the
defense strategy is proposed to the Ministry of Defense,
which then has the final word. Therefore, he deduced, it is
less dangerous to give the opposition the Ministry of
Interior than Defense.

21. (C) While acknowledging that both positions were
considered essential and it would be a "catastrophe" if the
opposition held both, Murr downplayed the Interior Ministry
(which oversees many of the politicized issues including
electoral law, voter registration, and the Internal Security
Forces). He told us that when he was previously the Minister
of Interior, his sister lost an election by one vote,
concluding, "Trust me! The Minister can't change election
results! It's heard to cheat, I know!"

22. (C) Moreover, he said, there should be international
observers for the summer 2009 parliamentary elections.
"Ideally, we win the parliamentary elections, and have a
strong LAF Commander and G-2," he hoped. He concluded by
stressing that it is an investment in the future to
strengthen the LAF, regardless of what is happening on the
ground.

23. (C) This strategy requires teamwork, Murr stated. He
voiced our thinking, "You don't want to invest in the LAF if
it is between the hands of Hizballah." While a
Hizballah-controlled Defense Ministry is a red line for Murr,
he said he is unsure if he is willing to trade the Interior
Ministry for Defense because the Interior Minister could
impose conditions on the LAF.

MURR'S OWN ATTEMPTS
AT COUNTERING HIZBALLAH
-----------------------

24. (C) Murr told us that 58 percent of the LAF was Shia when
he assumed his position as the Defense Minister. Now, the
Shia make up 23 percent, he said, because of his efforts. He
explained that after UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was
passed, the LAF went on a hiring spree to deploy troops to
the south, and the bulk of the new hires was intentionally
Sunni, Druze, and Christians. "Hizballah does not need to
turn its arms against the Lebanese people if it controls the
LAF," he continued, reasoning, "Today, if the Shia resign
from the LAF, I still have almost 80 percent of the army."

COMMENT
-------

25. (C) As Murr told us, his family has been a part of the
government since Lebanon's independence. His grandfather had
served as the Minister of Interior, his father, who is
currently an MP, held positions in 17 governments, and he has
served for 19 years in public service. Clearly, the Murrs
are seasoned politicians and tacticians. Elias Murr
anticipated and addressed CENTCOM's key concerns about the
LAF's standing. He tactically criticized the LAF's
performance, chalked it up to a "storm cloud that has
passed," and focused on why the U.S. should not give up. In
what was certainly a prepared 90-minute speech, Murr argued
why a strong LAF is the best defense against Hizballah. We
agree with his assessment.

26. (C) Murr's focus on the Ministry of Defense is a marked
changed from his previous position, which was his strong
desire to become the Minister of Interior. His fear of
losing U.S. support for the LAF, an institution he values,
could explain his shift. End comment.

27. (U) Lieutenant General Dempsey departed Beirut before
clearing this cable.
SISON

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