When Major General Abbas Ibrahim was the head of Lebanon’s General Security service, the role was varied and drew him into wider international affairs.
He became known for his mediation between conflicting parties, as he forged connections with – and between – people with directly opposed views. Ibrahim has been linked with a potential political role in the country ever since he left Beirut’s security apparatus at the beginning of this year, when his term of office was not renewed.
In a comprehensive interview with Al Majalla in Paris, Ibrahim exclusively revealed new details on how he facilitated contact between the President Donald Trump of the United States and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
He also outlined his role coordinating a clandestine visit to Damascus – by the head of French intelligence – alongside other forms of international contact he set up when sanctions and diplomatic isolation were imposed on Syria. They included a trip to Italy by Major General Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s national security office.
Ibrahim also openly addressed his political ambitions in Lebanon. And at this time of crisis in the Middle East, he spoke of his involvement in drawing up the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel.
These are highlights from a wide-ranging interview with a deeply well-connected figure of substance in regional and international politics, at a crucial time for the region.
General Ibrahim, did you assume your position in Lebanon as the director-general of General Security during a critical period? How did you manage to strike a balance in such a sensitive role, both in Lebanon and the Middle East?
“I took office in August 2011, at the onset of the Syrian crisis, which was only a few months old at the time.
“There was a global bet that the Syrian regime would endure for two or three months. I had a completely different vision. Undoubtedly, the Syrian crisis posed the greatest challenge for me when I assumed the leadership of Lebanese General Security.

“The repercussions of this crisis were terrifying for Lebanon. We faced a colossal challenge that reshaped the landscape in the region. Most importantly, the primary issue we confronted within Lebanon was the influx of Syrian refugees.
“The General Security had to adapt its administrative work to serve the five million Lebanese citizens while facing the repercussions of the entry of a million refugees – not tourists or visitors – which brought forth numerous challenges. This was the biggest challenge to the Lebanese General Security apparatus.”

To what extent was there coordination between Lebanese General Security and Syrian agencies or authorities concerning this matter?
“There was a constant challenge, and I have said from the very beginning that some of the Syrian refugees coming into Lebanon might exploit their displacement to infiltrate Lebanese security and execute the agendas of extremists within Lebanon.
“I dealt with the refugee issue from this perspective, taking into account its humanitarian dimensions. I would not be revealing a secret when I say that Lebanese General Security, from day one until the day I left the directorate, maintained the highest level of coordination with Syrian security agencies to preserve the security of Lebanon and Syria.
“Europe and the world – we are in France now conducting this interview – have significantly benefited from this coordination. You know that European countries closed their embassies in Syria, which, for me, was a significant strategic mistake.
I criticised all European countries for this mistake, emphasising the need to rectify it. When a country closes its embassy, it means they have become blind and deaf, unable to form an accurate idea of what is happening on the ground.”
Did they close their embassies for political reasons?
” when a state relies solely on reports received from another country. Every person writes reports according to their biases and opinions. We are experts in this matter.
“The closure of embassies made Lebanese General Security, which coordinates with Syrian authorities, a necessity and a pivotal player in dealing with the situation. A terrorist attack occurred here in France.

“It was a major terrorist attack that occurred in a sports stadium. They found a Syrian ID on the perpetrator’s dead body. The French authorities sent me this ID to confirm the person’s identity.
“Later, the Syrian authorities responded that the owner of this ID was in Syrian prisons, which came as a significant shock to France. We pursued the matter, starting with an attempt to identify this person in Syria. I believe that Europe has benefited greatly from this issue.”
Lebanese General Security has been accused of handing files to Syrian authorities about their opponents. What is your response?
“I would like to reveal, for the first time, that there were meetings in my office with Syrian opponents, some of the staunchest Syrian opponents, to try to establish points of communication between them and the Syrian authorities.
“When I say we did not deal with security, I mean that every morning when I arrived, I would take off my political cloak and leave it outside my office. I have always approached the Syrian matter with the same spirit.”

So, you did not hand any file regarding any political figure to the Syrian government?
“Not at all! This is a baseless claim that I reject. I hope someone comes forward after this interview and names or provides any evidence on this matter.
“There is a lot of talk, and you know empty talk is abundant in politics. As for coordinating with Syrian authorities to apprehend terrorists, whether in Syria or Lebanon, this is a matter I take pride in.
“I strongly disagree with the notion that these individuals are considered opposition figures, if that is indeed their belief.”
But what about Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria? At that time, you were still the director-general the security apparatus, and Hezbollah was a prominent player within the Lebanese structure, so, where did you stand on this decision? Was there any coordination involved?

“Allow me to clarify that Hezbollah did not engage in coordination with any entity within the Lebanese state when it opted to intervene in Syria. This lack of coordination extends from the level of General Security to higher echelons, including the political realm.
“It is crucial to emphasise that Hezbollah openly declared with any external party in this decision-making process. This decision, as I comprehend it, was motivated by Hezbollah’s belief that such intervention would safeguard the resistance in Lebanon.
“From their perspective, the most effective defence strategy involved taking offensive actions beyond the borders of the resistance territory. Hezbollah grounded this decision in its steadfast commitment to this ideology. However, it is important to note that no coordination occurred with General Security or any other entity during that period.”

How do you view this decision after almost ten years of the intervention in Syria by Hezbollah?
“In terms of security, I believe that this decision provided a protective shield for Lebanon, preventing numerous terrorist operations.
“On the political front, irrespective of its correctness, Hezbollah will be the one experiencing the consequences of this decision. However, let me tell you this, and I say it with confidence, that on this specific matter, Hezbollah served as a vital source of information for us in preventing numerous terrorist activities within Lebanon.
“While engaged in the conflict in Syria, Hezbollah was cognisant of the ground realities, maintaining a security perspective. As security agencies, we derived significant benefits from the insights and information they gathered.”

There are reports that you contributed to arranging and coordinating visits for senior Western security officials to Damascus.
“And Syrians to Europe, too…”
Can you provide specific examples or instances? For instance, did you facilitate the visit of the French Intelligence director to Damascus?
“Certainly, I organsed his visit two years ago or even earlier.”
Was it a clandestine visit?
“Initially, it was meant to be a secret visit to Damascus, but the details have become public now… to Damascus.”

What was the purpose of the visit?
“Despite the imposed ban on him, General Ali Mamlouk, the Director of the National Security Bureau of Syria, visited Rome, and I facilitated the arrangement between intelligence agencies.
“This was at the behest of Italian intelligence. During that period, the Italian intelligence director also visited Syria with me and invited General Mamlouk. In Rome, General Mamlouk met with the then Italian Interior Minister, and a photograph captured them alongside a model airplane in the minister’s office.
“General Mamlouk recognised that he had worked on the same airplane during his time in the Air Force. The presence of this airplane’s photograph in the Italian Interior Minister’s office fostered a closer connection between General Mamlouk and the minister.
“Subsequently, General Mamlouk’s visit faced considerable backlash in the European Union, and so forth, as we know. I take pride in having orchestrated this visit.”
What about the visit of the French intelligence director? What prompted it? When did it occur, and what were the specifics?
“Ultimately, as I told you earlier, I believe that closing the doors
between Syria and countries that were once labeled as friends proves
detrimental to both those nations and Syria itself.
“Acting upon this belief, I engaged in facilitating the visit. While I refrain from divulging the intricacies, deeming them either confidential or entrusted between the involved parties, I can affirm that when tasked with easing this visit, I dutifully fulfilled my role, facilitating the entire process.

There is a pivotal dossier, in which you played the role of mediator.  It focused on the security dialogue between Washington and Damascus. It began,  as I believe, with the release of the journalist Austin Tice. Could you shed more light on this?
“I recollect a special American envoy – named O’Brien – who initially visited my office on behalf of the US President who preceded Trump, Barack Obama, I think.
“His mission was to oversee matters concerning missing Americans worldwide. I welcomed him, and we convened a meeting in my office, marking the inception of a relationship tied to missing Americans or hostages.”

And that was around 2015?
“Indeed, in 2015. After this visit, I engaged with the US State Department, discussing numerous names that potentially could be in Syria.
“Our collaboration extended to various files, ultimately leading to the case of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese individual held captive in Iran. The narrative evolved to include Austin Tice.
“During President Trump’s tenure, I was visited by his senior adviser, who expressed the desire for a meeting, to which I obliged. The adviser was of Asian nationality and disclosed his role as the senior adviser to President Trump, assigned to a specific mission.”
And this conversation took place in 2018?
“Correct. I assured him of my commitment to follow up on this matter. These discussions transpired several months before the conclusion of President Trump’s term.”

And this conversation took place in 2018?
“Correct. I assured him of my commitment to follow up on this matter. These discussions transpired several months before the conclusion of President Trump’s term.”
And in 2019… Yes, in 2019 they went to Damascus…  In August 2019.
“Indeed, that is correct. Subsequently, they revisited me in the company of Roger Carstens.
“Carstens, tasked with overseeing global hostage files and a former officer in the special forces, engaged in a compelling conversation marked by military camaraderie. Towards the meeting’s conclusion, they extended an invitation for me to visit Syria, expressing the intention to directly engage with Syrian authorities on this matter.”
Do you recall the date of this meeting? Was it around March or April… Spring of 2019?
“Yes, it occurred in the spring. As is customary in dealings with our Syrian counterparts, proceedings unfold at a measured pace—a continuous exchange of questions and answers.”
Did those proceedings need political approval?
“Convincing the political in Syria of the significance of this visit, emphasising that this delegation should represent President Trump specifically … months. Approval for the visit was granted. I contacted my American friends at that time, and the delegation came to Beirut. They visited me at my home, and we discussed the particulars.”
Any specifics?
“I had clearly set a limit for these negotiations… I can tell you more now if you’re interested in the details.
We are very interested.
“We discussed the details, and I presented the discussion points I had set to the Syrian brothers, and they agreed.”
Which were what exactly?
“We went to Syria the next day. General Ali Mamlouk gathered all the security agencies in his office, along with the American delegation and me personally.

“An initial introduction took place; such a meeting requires time to break the ice after all the political clashes between the two countries and the American presence on Syrian soil and so on. This is an extremely sensitive matter for President Assad, who had the stance that any state with military presence on Syrian soil is an occupying force.”
 And an illegitimate one at that.
“Meeting them was rejected by Assad. However, he made an exception here, because, I will tell you why… Anyway, the meeting took place, and it was a unique meeting. I had set conditions for this meeting and discussed these conditions at length with General Mamlouk until we reached an agreement. In exchange for this file, we presented three discussion points.”
So, it means that in exchange for discussing Austin Tice, Syria wanted to discuss three topics?
“Not just to discuss… I sent these conditions to the American authorities, and they agreed: the withdrawal of American forces from a specified area in northeastern Syria – not a complete withdrawal – lifting sanctions, or some of them, on Syria, and restoring diplomatic relations in exchange for proof of life only.”
Just proof that Tice is alive or dead, any detail…
“Exactly. After that, I received an invitation to the White House. They sent a private plane to Beirut, and I went to the White House.
“I felt that the atmosphere was entirely positive. I met the national security advisor twice, once in the White House and once at a dinner hosted by a mutual American friend. We discussed the details until I contracted Covid-19 while in the US and had to stay in my hotel.”
So what was the sequence of events? Did you go to the White House and set the agenda before they came to Damascus, or was it the other way around?
“No, it was before. They came to Damascus, where I outlined these broad headlines for them.”
“What did they propose in Damascus when they came? Did they only say they wanted information about Austin Tice?
“I advised them to discuss matters not directly related to Tice. At the end of the meeting, the topic of Austin Tice was brought up. They proposed issues close to the three aforementioned conditions because I had already set the atmosphere that this is what we want from them. They raised topics like the withdrawal…”
For example, withdrawing from oil fields in Deir ez-Zor, something like that?
“Withdrawal from ar-Raqqa entirely at that time, and lifting most of the sanctions on Syria…”

Or for humanitarian reasons, exceptions to specific sanctions…
“Exactly. We went there, and I contracted Covid-19… so, while waiting until I recovered and could travel…”
“But you had previously met with the National Security Advisor in Washington, DC, over dinner…
“In sequence, they came to my house, we went to Damascus, and met with General Mamlouk and all the young people. The discussions were between me and General Mamlouk.”
But they said they wanted information about Tice…
“In the last meeting. First, we talked about the agenda items but did not discuss them in depth, such as the withdrawal item…”
Talks about withdrawal, sanctions, and diplomatic relations…
Did they really agree to these matters?
“Yes, they did. They agreed to them… but President Trump, while I was still in America, made a statement that he planned to assassinate President Assad, so Syria halted this matter. I mean, at that point we were trying to resolve these problems…”
Who was the national security advisor at that time?
“It was O’Brien.”

So, the American delegation came to Damascus, and then you went to Washington, where you met with the National Security Advisor…
“Let’s wrap up this matter. As I mentioned earlier, in return for a proof of life—confirmation of whether this man is alive or deceased. Subsequently, during my time in Washington, or America to be more precise, as I wasn’t specifically in Washington, DC, at that particular moment…
Where were you?
“I was in America for a work visit, but not in Washington, DC.”
Does that mean you were at the US Intelligence Headquarters?
“No, I left Washington, DC, and Virginia, and went to another state. President Trump made the statement within the context of his election campaign – I think – because it was in his last days…”
And that was in 2019…
“That’s right. That he was planning or working towards…”
Or thinking or giving orders to assassinate Assad…
“Assassinating President Assad. This statement was in complete contradiction to the positive atmosphere that existed back then. I received a call from Syria…
Who called you from Damascus?
“It was General Ali Mamlouk, who requested freezing all efforts in this direction. So I went back to…
How did you feel at that time?
“No significant reaction. It’s a pattern I often encounter—reaching these phases where we either backtrack or find ourselves in a state of partial despair, only for doors to eventually open. I conveyed to him,  ‘Alright’.”

So, was the process frozen?
“I conveyed to the Americans that progress in this initiative had come to a halt.
“Presently, this issue is inactive following the statement from your president, eliciting a highly unfavorable response. I made it clear to them: ‘You shoulder the responsibility.’
 Subsequently, after a few days, I departed from the hotel where I was quarantining due to Covid-19, returned to Beirut, and engaged with General Mamlouk to delve into the subject.”
What did you discuss?
“We talked about what was going on. He briefed me on the situation, and I endorsed his suggestion that this dossier should be halted. Especially since we were making positive strides in this direction, and then such statements were unexpectedly made.
But later, I believe that two representatives were sent by Biden to visit Damascus, is that correct?
“No, because, let me tell you again, during President Biden’s tenure, following the Lebanese elections in May, two-and-a-half years ago, they also arranged for a plane to transport me to the White House, where we discussed this issue.”
Did you have a meeting with William Burns , the director of the CIA?
“Yes, I met with William Burns back then, and with officials from the White House.”
Was that in May 2021 or 2022?
“In 2021, I met with them. To tell you the truth, one of the topics was Tice, and there were Lebanese issues: the oil matter, the electricity issue from Egypt, and many topics that were discussed with me.
“I remember that the White House was opened on Sunday. I suggested waiting until the next day, Monday. I went to the White House; it was closed initially, but they opened the doors and barriers. We had this session because of its importance to them.
“Since I stayed in America for three or four days afterward, there was enough time. They were in a hurry; they might have had commitments the next day. They informed me of their intention to visit Syria, and at that point, I wasn’t aware of the specifics of their mission.
“The crucial aspect was the request to assemble a delegation for a visit to Syria. This delegation also represented the US president, and based on my understanding, Mrs. Debra Tice, Austin’s mother, was exerting pressure on the US administration to progress with this matter.
“We held a session with President Biden, and after the session, the president promised and gave orders in front of her to all his advisors to do their utmost to resolve this issue.”
What happened later?
“The Syrian president refused to receive any delegation. The door was closed permanently.”

What about the issue of demarcating the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel? Of course, your friend Amos Hochstein played a very significant role in it. But also, how do you read this issue?
“No, this is a multi-dimensional issue—political, technical, and momentary, if you will, political. This matter has been on the table since 2012, engaging in discussions and open negotiations with the United States serving as an intermediary between Lebanon and Israel.
“However, no conclusive results were achieved due to a fundamental error. Initially, the exclusive economic zone or boundaries between us and Palestine span eight hundred and sixty kilometers. The US mediator, Frederick Hoff, proposed allocating two-thirds of this area to Lebanon and one-third to Israel, which is rightfully ours. Lebanon vehemently rejected this proposal.
“We insisted on the full eight hundred and sixty-five kilometers. Subsequently, developments occurred, and the gas issue surfaced, driven by the need for European gas following the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
“The United States sought a singular gas source to fulfill Europe’s requirements, detached from the Russian Ukraine. Israeli and Lebanese gas were considered among these resources.
“Addressing this matter required the delineation of borders; otherwise, Lebanese and Israeli gas would consistently face threats. Hence, border demarcation became imperative.
“The United States took the lead in initiating this process, involving numerous rounds of negotiations. Discussions between Mr. Amos Hochstein and me turned into confidential sessions…”
Where did these negotiations take place?
“In Doha… and in Beirut, several secret sessions were held…”
When did the first session take place?
“The initial session took place in 2021 during the opening of the Arab Cup in Doha.
“While attending the tournament, I had my first encounter with Amos in Doha. A day earlier, I had engaged with the Qatari Minister of Oil alongside the Lebanese Minister of Oil. Following the departure of the Lebanese delegation, headed by President Michel Aoun, from Qatar, I informed President Aoun of my decision to stay and join them later, as I intended to meet Amos.
“I remained inconspicuously in Doha. After the delegation’s departure, I met Mr. Amos, and from that point onward, the presentation of maps commenced. The initial map faced unequivocal rejection. Subsequent sessions were conducted, refining the map in my Beirut office, leading to the eventual agreement.”
What was the first map like?
“The initial map had deviations on line 23, which gives Lebanon its full rights. There were significant cut-offs favoring the Israeli enemy.
“I rejected them and later modified the map with fewer losses for Lebanon. I told him, ’23 means 23.’ We cannot accept anything below that threshold. He and I reached an agreement under specific conditions, which is now in effect.”
Later, it was publicly signed, but had you reached the agreement?
“The agreement was reached a month-and-a-half before its public signing.”
Do you now see a political dimension to this issue and recognition of Israel?
“There is no recognition of Israel. I in one of the statements that this is not an agreement; it is a settlement. A settlement is the imposition of a factual situation.
“Even with the enemy, there are settlements. This is a settlement, and the delineation between us and Israel is a temporary settlement because the supposed Israeli waters are actually Palestinian waters that have been seized.”

But this means recognition of Israel’s existence, doesn’t it? You are signing a settlement with another party…
Certainly, when I engage in a settlement with a party, it does not imply recognition. The Prophet (peace be upon Him) crafted the Hudaybiyyah Treaty, and we adhere to historical accounts. However, it does not signify acknowledgment of Israel as a state. It is a fait accompli that exists as an entity. My objective is to secure my rights and reclaim what rightfully belongs to us.”
There was talk a few weeks ago about demarcating the land borders between Lebanon and Israel…
“In August 2017, I had a visit from. Michael Beary, the UNIFIL forces commander, who conveyed a message from the Israelis.
“I welcomed him, and he explained their desire to delineate the land borders. However, there were thirteen specific points of contention between us and occupied Palestine. The Israelis sought to rectify the coordinates at these points and requested that I be the exclusive negotiator from Lebanon. I pointed out that such a decision was a political one.
“After careful consideration, I conveyed our agreement to their proposal after ten days. However, I personally chose not to go to Naqoura or engage directly with the Israeli delegation.
“Instead, I formed a delegation consisting of members from the army and the General Security to manage the negotiations, which took place from my office. They conducted rounds of negotiations, received directives, reported back with updates, and I provided further guidance. This process continued through 19 confidential rounds of negotiations.”
Is every meeting of yours secret?
“Almost. We discussed six out of the 13 points initially. However, I started to observe an Israeli effort to wrap up the land negotiations in a manner that would favor their position concerning maritime matters.
“This is a multifaceted matter that necessitates a detailed explanation. Therefore, I directed our delegation to propose a suspension of the land negotiations with the Israelis until we can address and resolve the maritime issue.”

We spoke more about politics than security, or perhaps we spoke about both security and politics…
“You predicted a political future for me.”
Do you feel aggrieved because your term wasn’t extended?
“There is a common but mistaken perception that not extending General Ibrahim’s term is an exception.
“If the term had been extended, that would have been the exception. At that crucial moment, there hadn’t been an agreement to convene a parliamentary session, since an extension requires legislation.
“The Christian party insists on legislating necessity, asserting that extending an official’s term doesn’t warrant a session as a necessity. So, they didn’t participate in the session, leading to a loss of quorum. We surpassed 2 March, the extension deadline, and it didn’t materialise.”
What about you, General Abbas Ibrahim? What are your aspirations?
“I considered my role in General Security as a form of public service.
“There were occasions, as you mentioned, where I went beyond the specific duties of the job and engaged in broader public service. Among the things I did was hostage liberation and other similar tasks. My achievements over the 12 to 13 years are widely recognised and fall within the framework of my ongoing commitment to public service.
“My aspiration is to see Lebanon as a nation of citizens, free from sectarianism, similar to any other country. We are currently in France, where diverse sects coexist, perhaps even more than in Lebanon.
“However, here, there is an individual identified as a French citizen. This citizenship holds greater importance than any other affiliation for this individual. While he may pray in the temple of his choice, ultimately, he identifies as French first and last. That is my aspiration.”

But there is a platform where someone can play a public role. Do you envision this platform, this tool, being within Parliament or perhaps within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
“When asked which ministerial position I would prefer if given the choice, I said, the one that aligns with my activities over the past 12 years, i.e., the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“But that does not mean that I am looking to be a minister; I am not actively pursuing a ministerial position or any other role. However, as the electoral deadline approaches in two and a half years, there is a possibility that I may consider candidacy for the parliamentary session.”
So, it is possible, given Lebanon’s sectarian dynamics, that your aspirations could also include the position of Speaker of the Parliament…
“May God grant a long life to the current Speaker Mr. Nabih Berri.”
How would you describe your relationship with the current Speaker?
“It is very normal.”
Is it normal, good, or perfect?
“No, no. It is normal. I am consistently asked about this relationship in interviews. It is a very normal relationship.
“The question itself is weird, though. I am aware of the confusion that occurred after my term was not extended, and all the subsequent rumors… however, the relationship between us is normal.”
So, it is not good, but it is normal….
“And it is not bad either.”

Al Majalla Magzine