BEIRUT: After several years of disengagement, Saudi Arabia is seeking to re-engage with Lebanese officials and bolster state institutions, a source familiar with talks to implement a grant for the Lebanese Army told The Daily Star this week.
President Michel Sleiman recently announced that the kingdom had pledged a $3 billion royal grant for the Army to receive support, which could include equipment, training and weapons from France.
The same source indicated the arms deal was one of the subjects Lebanese leaders discussed with Emmanuel Bonne, a French diplomat sent to Beirut this week on behalf of President Francois Hollande.
Lebanese authorities working in conjunction with the Army are currently compiling a list of needs, the source said.
Through the agreement, which, according to the source, “has no political conditions or fixed timeline,” the Lebanese Army will be better able to enforce the nation’s official policy of disassociation from the Syrian conflict.
Bonne met with several senior political figures this week, among them Ammar al-Mussawi, Hezbollah’s international relations officer, to discuss the arms deal and increasing regional tensions.
Bonne and Mussawi had a “frank and constructive” conversation, according to the source, but there remain “a certain number of disagreements, some of them serious” between the Elysee and Hezbollah, specifically over the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
The French envoy discussed details of arms deal with Mussawi, assuring him that France’s only interest was to bolster Lebanese institutions, not influence the nation’s politics, the source said.
The source revealed that Bonne worked to convince Mussawi that France’s “sole desire is to reinforce the ability of the Lebanese Army.”
Still, after two “terrorist” attacks in the last three weeks targeting Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs, the party “feels exposed” and acknowledges the importance of preserving and bolstering state institutions like the Lebanese Army, the source added.
Despite the attacks, which have been attributed to radical Islamist groups seeking revenge for Hezbollah’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the French administration does not foresee Hezbollah’s disengagement from Syria in the near future, the source said.
Although there have been reports of the Army cooperating with Hezbollah as recently as last summer, France has “no reason to believe” that any of the $3 billion in tactical and material support will aid the party’s military wing, which was officially listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union six months ago, the source said.
Bonne also discussed the deepening Syrian crisis and the Geneva II conference with Lebanese authorities during talks in which he highlighted the need for a transitional government in Syria, the source said.
According to the source, the French administration does not believe that a political situation to the Syrian crisis can be found so long as Assad remains in power.
“Assad is not a partner in the fight against terrorism,” the source quoted Bonne as saying.
Bonne’s visit to Beirut comes amid France’s mounting concerns over some 700 French citizens who have left to fight against the Syrian regime, some as young as 15.