Rome Donors Conference Supports ISF and LAF Security Efforts, Emphasize Importance of Dissociation

 Some 40 countries gathered in Rome last week to hear details of the updated Capabilities Development Plan of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the first-ever strategic plan for the Internal Security Forces (ISF). The key question from the donors was about the government’s intention to take a more active role in extending its security activities to the south, adjacent to the border with Israel.

It is clear to Western governments that significant levels of assistance are required to support Lebanon’s military and security forces and its financial sector to stall and reduce the growing influence of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military and political force in the country. In addition, it was expected that Lebanon would reiterate its dissociation policy to avoid entanglements in regional disputes and conflicts to preserve its independence and territorial integrity.

The US has been the leading donor, providing some $1.5 billion in materiel, equipment, ammunition, and training over the past decade, most recently another $120 million for border security and counterterrorism operations this past December.

The delegation, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri along with cabinet ministers and military leaders, sought to renew and strengthen ties with foreign governments that according to the Wall Street Journal, “want to counterbalance the growing Iranian presence in the country.

The donor side was led by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini. Both were quite explicit in their support for Lebanon and their expectations. In his opening remarks, the Secretary General said that “Preserving the stability and unity of Lebanon is essential for Lebanon, the region, and the world.”

He went on to say that while “Lebanon is headed in the right direction,” that the government has broader responsibilities. “Stability requires a transparent, accountable, and democratic state, rooted in the rule of law and strong and functional institutions,” he emphasized, urging all to remain strongly and visibly committed to stability in Lebanon – “for the sake of the Lebanese people and for the wider peace that is so essential at this time.”

He also mentioned the importance of the dissociation policy, “At a time of upheaval across the region, Lebanon cannot afford to be drawn into conflict with its neighbors,” he added, underscoring that countries in the region should work to avoid any steps that could lead to misunderstanding, confrontation, or escalation.

He concluded that “To support the Lebanese unity and stability is to support the stability in the whole region and to contribute to diminish the dramatic stress in relation to peace that we are facing today in the world.”

In a joint statement, conference participants said Lebanon should “accelerate effective and durable deployments to the South.” Prime Minister Hariri assured the donors that “We will be sending more LAF troops to the south, and we stress our intention to deploy another regiment,” adding that Israel “remains the primary threat to Lebanon.” While we are thinking of ways to move from a state of cessation of hostilities to a state of permanent ceasefire, Israel continues to make plans to build walls on reservation areas along the blue line,” Hariri said.

The European Union pledged $61.6 million to Lebanon’s security forces, and France is providing a $400 million credit facility for military and security equipment purchases, while the UK pledged an additional $13 million. This package includes $57 million for promoting the rule of law, enhancing security and countering terrorism until 2020, and another $5 million in support of security upgrades and Beirut International Airport.

When Federica Mogherini made the announcement during the Rome meeting, she said that “Lebanon can count on the European Union’s longstanding partnership in facing its current challenges, from humanitarian aid to development cooperation, but also on economy and security. With this new package, the EU reconfirms its support to the Lebanese security sector and the strengthening of Lebanon’s institutions, which are crucial to ensure the stability, security and unity of the country, for the benefit of the Lebanese people and of the entire region.”

The US continues to see Lebanon as a bulwark against the push of extremists in the region, and is strongly committed to Lebanon’s security and capability. While Hezbollah’s role in the country continues to enrage some members of Congress and other pro-Israel partisans in the policy community, the fact remains that without Lebanon and similarly Jordan, the aggravated tensions caused by the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis would have caused even greater issues of immigration and terrorism in Europe and the US.

The next stop for Lebanon is Paris in April, where Lebanese officials are expected to seek $17 billion in economic support in soft loans to invest in infrastructure and development. Given the expected passage of the national budget this week, despite political infighting that has paralyzed economic decision making, Lebanon can ill afford to stall. At 148%, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world, with annual growth projected at around 2% for 2018, not nearly enough to provide even half of the jobs needed by the Lebanese, let alone the refugee populations.

At a conference in Paris in April, Lebanese officials are expected to seek $17 billion in economic support for Beirut, likely in the form of soft loans to invest in infrastructure and development. The tiny Mediterranean nation has been reeling from an influx of Syrian war refugees, while political infighting has paralyzed economic decision making. At 148%, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world, with annual growth projected at around 2% for 2018.

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