YARZE, Lebanon: Despite the absence of a president, the international community remains committed to supporting Lebanese security services, which are “desperately stretched,” according to U.N. Special Coordinator Derek Plumbly. Engaged in maintaining internal security, counterterrorism efforts and border protection, both the Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces “need international support,” Plumbly told The Daily Star in an interview.
Earlier this week, a video allegedly showing a Lebanese soldier explaining why he had fled to join Al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel group the Nusra Front was widely circulated. Plumbly downplayed the significance of the act.
“The Army has said that this is an individual act, and I have no reason to disbelieve that,” Plumby said. “I have a lot of respect for the Army.”
The soldier in the video, believed to be Atef Mohammad Saadeddine, said he was motivated to leave after seeing the cooperation between the Army and Hezbollah and the Army’s “harassment” of Sunnis.
Plumby, however, brushed off such allegations, calling the Army “a multiconfessional institution and [it] is seen as such by the country at large.”
It has been widely reported that the Lebanese Army is coordinating with Hezbollah to secure the mountainous region outside the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal where Nusra Front fighters are known to have sought refuge. But despite Hezbollah’s classification as a terrorist organization by some foreign governments, Plumbly said this cooperation was “not a concern” for the United Nations or other international actors.
And while the specter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) looms large across Lebanon, Plumbly suggested it was unlikely the terrorist organization would make inroads in the country as it has done elsewhere in the region.
The danger ISIS poses to Lebanon, according to Plumbly, is “not an Iraq-style threat, but it’s not Twitter rhetoric.”
“You see security forces identifying people who were planning to undertake suicide terrorist attacks within Lebanon. That’s serious, but it doesn’t mean that ISIS has a sort of Syrian or Iraqi profile here,” Plumbly added.
While he lauded the continued implementation of security plans in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley even following the end of President Michel Sleiman’s term, he said the presidential vacuum was having a negative impact on all government institutions, including those charged with the nation’s safekeeping.
“It’s urgent and important that things move,” he said of the election of a president.
“The political atmosphere is acrimonious,” he added.
“I think it’s serious, and I think that as time goes on it becomes more difficult, frankly.”
While some, notably Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, have called for the Constitution to be amended to allow presidential candidates to be put to popular vote, Plumbly said he would be “surprised” if such a radical overhaul would be approved in the near future.
With respect to the ongoing Israeli offensive on Gaza, Plumbly said that despite a number of rockets launched from Lebanon toward Israel, there was little indication hostilities between the two countries would escalate.
“I think overall my sense is that there is no desire really to expose Lebanon to danger in this conflict,” he said.
Still, U.N. officials were “concerned” about the possibility of regional fallout from the Gaza-Israel conflict, which has already claimed more than 800 lives, mostly Palestinian civilians.
“We have to be cautious,” Plumbly concluded.
The Syrian crisis, which has brought more than 1.1 million refugees to Lebanon, also remains a high priority for U.N. officials, Plumbly said.
He expressed faith that the Lebanese authorities were capable of managing the Syrian refugee crisis, yet also pointed to the financial strain. The U.N. Refugee Agency has raised less than one-third of the funds it has requested to care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon this year.
“We need, I need, colleagues need to keep on reminding people that Lebanon is bearing a particular burden,” he said. “We’re working on talking to Lebanese authorities about how we get assistance, more assistance to those who are most vulnerable, whether they are Syrian refugees or Lebanese citizens or [Lebanese] institutions.”
Plumbly also rebuffed rumors that he would soon leave his post.
“I like Lebanon, and I’m very conscious of all the burdens that it’s presently bearing,” he said.
“I’m not thinking about what I might do next. I’m here.”