ROME: An international conference in Italy Tuesday will concentrate on providing political support for the Lebanese Army, rather than arms or money, a source inside the Italian government said, even as the region reels from the lightening advance of a fundamentalist group in Iraq and the ongoing Syrian crisis.
The Army is seen as a force that can maintain peace on the border and in tension-stricken areas of the Bekaa Valley and the north, the source, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star.
The military’s role is expected to become more prominent in light of the recent advances in Iraq of the extremist Sunni group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a development that will feed into the existing sectarian conflict in the region and is likely to affect Lebanon.
But in light of the recent $3 billion Saudi grant to the Army, the purpose of the International Support Group for Lebanon conference will not be to collect funds for the ill-equipped military, but rather to offer much-needed “political support.”
Asked whether the conference was a way to isolate Hezbollah by strengthening the national army, the source said: “It aims at sending a clear message that the international community supports the state and its institutions.”
Another Italian government official said the international gathering was also aimed at fortifying Lebanon and preventing a repeat of the situation in Syria, something that is more likely if the war-torn country becomes a failed state.
Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil and Defense Minister Samir Moqbel arrived in Rome Monday to attend the conference, which is slated to start at 11:30 a.m. Beirut time Tuesday with brief opening speeches.
The Lebanese delegation will hold side meetings with various international groups to discuss possible future projects to enhance the role of the Army.
Italy’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Lapo Pistelli described the Lebanese Army as a model example of coexistence.
“We seek to enhance and strengthen the role of the Lebanese Army, not only because security is pivotal for the state, but also because the Army is an example of a melting pot – they work together despite ethnic origins,” Pistelli said during a media forum in the Italian capital.
He reiterated his country’s support for the role played by the Army.
The Secretary-General of the Italian Foreign Ministry Michele Valensise said the conference would be an opportunity to continue cooperation between Rome and Beirut, voicing confidence that the gathering would conclude with “concrete results.”
“This conference comes amid a regional situation characterized by tension. The Syrian crisis has had devastating consequences and the situation in Iraq has become increasingly complicated,” Valensise said during the forum, noting that international efforts were needed to contain the situation.
The capabilities of the Army have been put to the test this year and last with a series of car bombings, the recurrent clashes in the city of Tripoli and the infiltration of Syrian gunmen and extremist forces into the country.
Although the security plan – led by the military but with the covert help of Hezbollah – to restore law and order has succeeded in containing the spillover of the Syrian conflict, the crackdown also demonstrated that the Army was in dire need of military aid and local and international support.
As the forum discussed the fundamental problems standing in the way of stability in Lebanon, Italian Ambassador to Beirut Giuseppe Morabito said Lebanon should be dealt with in a regional context, saying foreign interference in local affairs “exacerbates differences in Lebanese society.”
“Lebanon is not a world in itself or a self-contained country ... it is linked with developments in both Syria and Iraq,” he said, adding that Italy had deliberately refrained from intervening in local affairs.
The envoy also made an appeal to the EU to treat Lebanon as a greater priority than Ukraine, saying Beirut was geographically closer to Italy and should enjoy enough support to address its concerns.
The overwhelming presence of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees was the center of talks during the forum, with Pistelli commending the Lebanese as well as their institutions for their “extraordinary ability” in bearing the brunt of the crisis.