ROME: The international community Tuesday pledged logistical support for the Lebanese Army to strengthen its vital role in tackling the growing threat of extremist groups in the region, but fell short of providing funds or arms for the ill-equipped military.
During a conference hosted by the Italian government in Rome, 40 countries vowed to help the Army fight terrorism in a region threatening to become what Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini called “a hub of terror.”
Brazil, Cyprus, Egypt, Finland, France, Ghana, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and Turkey all expressed their willingness to offer additional specialized training support in a number of fields. The European Union pledged to step up its support for the Army in terms of civilian-military cooperation tasks, institutional capacity building, integrated border management and demining.
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti announced her country would build a training center in south Lebanon, while the U.S. said it would provide increased assistance, including for counterterrorism and border security. Iran was not present.
Parliament’s failure to elect a president, however, loomed large over the conference.
“Participants expressed deep regret that the election of a new president of the Republic of Lebanon did not take place within the constitutional timeframe,” the concluding statement said. “Participants underscored the importance, not least for confidence and stability, of the election of a new president without delay.”
Tuesdays’ conference comes under the remit of the International Support Group for Lebanon, which was created late last year to salvage the country’s economy, help the government face the Syrian refugee crisis and support the Army, a Lebanese government official said.
Given its understanding and knowledge of the political landscape in the country, namely the dispute over Hezbollah’s arsenal, Italy was tasked with the section concerning the Army support, the official said.
The Lebanese Army needed an estimated $6.2 billion in equipment, a figure that has been brought down dramatically by the Saudi grant of $3 billion and the government’s $1.2 billion Capabilities Development Plan, the official said. The conference was a chance to fill that gap.
Addressing those gathered for Tuesday’s conference at the Italian Foreign Ministry headquarters, Lebanon’s Defense Minister Samir Moqbel outlined what was needed to improve the capabilities of the Lebanese Army, including a modern and secure information and communication system, a large panel of intelligence collection and the means to counter land, sea or air incursions.
Italy’s Mogherini emphasized that what was needed was continuous support: “International assistance will not be sufficient to support stability. ... We need to begin a process that is longstanding.”
“We know this is not a pledging conference but ... Italy is ready to provide education and training for the Army,” she said. “It is the beginning of a process, a well-structured mechanism that’s been already launched in Lebanon.”
Although Mogherini told reporters that the presidential void would not interfere with the conference’s work, she said, “We don’t want a void at a time of so much weakness because we want to allow the Army to perform its tasks.”
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil took the opportunity to praise Hezbollah for what he called protecting Lebanon from the rise of terrorism by interfering in Syria, pointing to the Army’s incapability to do so due to a lack of political will and international assistance.
“The roll out of terrorism [from the region] is already being felt in Lebanon but the intervention of a Lebanese group has put a stop to it and prevented it from reaching Lebanon,” he said, referring to Hezbollah.
Asked about a timeframe to implement the promised assistance, Bassil said that speed was essential given the pace that extremist groups were gaining ground and power, but added, “progress is dependent on the speed and willingness of [donor] countries, as some of them have political agendas.”
Bassil also made a point of telling the international community that a better-equipped Army “should not aim to create a military balance or create a military conflict and ... those who think as such are mistaken.”
But Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for political affairs, insisted that it was up to the Lebanese, not the international community, to decide the role the Army would play.
“It is not a multinational force and it is there to protect Lebanon, to preserve the security and stability of Lebanon for the sake of Lebanon’s citizens,” Feltman said.
“What today does, I think, is provide further momentum for people to look at what they can do to support the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] – but this is a demonstration of the international community’s recognition of our own responsibility to support Lebanon at a time of need.”