Lebanon spymaster holds ‘positive’ US talks on hostages and sharing intelligence

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

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon's General Security agency is seen in Beirut, Lebanon May 23, 2018. Picture taken May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
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Lebanon's head of General Security, Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, hoped to boost intelligence sharing with the US and work on releasing more hostages held in Iran and Syria, he told The National.

Gen Ibrahim was in Washington on a four-day visit to meet officials from the White House, State Department and the CIA.

He leads Lebanon’s most powerful security service after the military and has a reputation as a savvy negotiator who has helped to secure the release of US residents and nationals.

He has also brokered deals with extremists such as ISIS and militant Palestinian factions to end bouts of fighting in Lebanon.

Despite having a close relationship with Hezbollah, Gen Ibrahim received a warm welcome from the Trump administration.

On this visit, he met National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, CIA director 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, Gen Ibrahim is looking to the young but growing relations with the US on sharing intelligence.

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

Gen Ibrahim was involved last year in securing the release of US citizen 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 to 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.

Gen Ibrahim is regarded as a key mediator in the Tice case and was known to be in Damascus in May, where he said he was discussing cross-border security and smuggling.

But the Lebanese spy chief 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 was confident Mr Tice was alive.

But the Assad government has not responded to Mr Trump’s letter.

Diplomatic sources said a full US withdrawal from Syria was one demand Damascus was considering in return for releasing Tice.

Randa Slim, of the Middle East Institute, described Gen Ibrahim as a key mediator on the issue of hostages.

“Mr Ibrahim is in a position to deliver on the US hostages file in Syria and Iran,” Ms Slim said.

“He has excellent relations with Hezbollah leaders and has woven, over the years, a web of personal relationships and contacts with senior Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian officials in the intelligence and political circles.”

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

His visit also comes just days after the US-led talks between Israel and Lebanon got under way to agree on the maritime border between the two countries.

But Gen Ibrahim said 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 that each side feels is the correct boundary.

The issue has taken on urgency because 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 Gen 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 said.

She was referring to recent US sanctions on Beirut officials and the international community's need to see reforms before it will help to address the country’s crises, and the demands of protesters.

“This elite, mainly Hezbollah and its allies, are trying to use talks with the US to avoid more sanctions before the [US] elections," Ms Ghaddar said.

"They hope that with the negotiations, and Mr Ibrahim coming to the US, they might be able to weather the storms until the elections on November 3.”

As Lebanon’s anti-government protests enter their second year, Ms Ghaddar said the warm welcome Gen 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,” she said.

US officials have been discreet about Gen Ibrahim's visit.

Repeated requests for comment to the White House, State Department and CIA were not returned but no agency denied the meetings.