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World powers gather to support Lebanon

File - President Michel Sleiman speaks during a conference in Kaslik, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: World powers meeting in Paris Wednesday are set to pledge aid to Lebanon to help it cope with the drastic repercussions of the nearly 3-year-old civil war in neighboring Syria.

The meeting comes as talks over Lebanon’s Cabinet policy statement appear to be at a deadlock, with rival parties standing firm on their contradictory stances over mentioning the resistance in the political blueprint.

The conference is hosted by the International Support Group for Lebanon. The ISGL was launched in New York last September to support the country’s national institutions and Army, along with helping Lebanon cope with the influx of over a million refugees from Syria.

Heading an official delegation, President Michel Sleiman flew to France Tuesday to attend.

Shadi Karam, Sleiman’s adviser and a member of the delegation, said participants at the conference would provide grants to a multi-donor trust fund for Lebanon established by the World Bank.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Karam said the conference would see another form of support for Lebanon, with some countries providing direct grants.

“We explored some innovative financial solutions with the World Bank. If we find a political appetite in approving these innovative solutions tomorrow, we will follow it up with ... donor countries,” Karam said.

Lebanon, with a weak government and threadbare national infrastructure even before the Syrian crisis erupted almost three years ago, has struggled to support refugees who have swelled the existing population of approximately 4 million.

The World Bank estimates that Lebanon will need $2.6 billion over three years just to handle the refugee crisis. Western countries have been reluctant to assist by giving money directly to Lebanon’s government given the internal turmoil.

Karam said the conference would be launched by Sleiman and French President Francois Hollande.

In his inaugural address, Sleiman will highlight “the fact that the New York meeting was a launching point of a series of tangible decisions and initiatives,” Karam said.

He added that Sleiman would also stress the importance of preserving stability in Lebanon and meeting constitutional deadlines.

“This group’s objective is to avoid the differences that we have on Syria spreading to Lebanon,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters, referring to the ISGL. “This meeting will provide support for the army, the economy and the refugee crisis.”

While hopes for stability in Lebanon were raised with the formation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s Cabinet last month, optimism has faded as it struggles to agree on a policy statement before a March 16 deadline.

Despite the uncertain political situation in Beirut, the Paris meeting will go ahead with the foreign ministers of the five veto-wielding Security Council members – France, United States, Russia, Britain and China – attending.

Saudi Arabia was also invited. It donated $3 billion in December for upgrades to the Lebanese Army and asked France to supply weapons to be purchased with the funds.

Karam said the Saudi grant would be generally tackled Wednesday, as an ISGL conference would convene in a few weeks in Rome to address the issue in specific.

Lebanon’s military is one of the few institutions not crippled by sectarian divisions, but it is ill-equipped.

“The Army is aging and has a five-year modernization plan,” a French diplomatic source said. “It’s up to the Lebanese to coordinate their wish list.”

The government approved a five-year plan to improve the Lebanese Army’s capabilities in 2012.

Diplomatic sources said that France was set to supply hardware to Lebanon ranging from communications gear to helicopters, tanks and long-range anti-tank missiles.

Karam said that on the sidelines of the conference, Sleiman was expected to meet separately with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Ambassador Sergey Lavrov and other officials.

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said the Paris conference was aimed at expressing support for Lebanon’s efforts to distance itself from civil war in Syria.

“The international community is coming together in Paris to express its strong support for Lebanon, for Lebanon’s stability, for its efforts to insulate itself from the spillover effects of the conflict in Syria,” Hale said in an interview with LBCI TV station.“Obviously financial resources are important to those efforts and the United States has contributed $340 million since the Syrian crisis began to help Lebanese communities deal with the Syrian refugee problem,” he added. “But financial issues, financial answers are not the final answer. We need to work on a political solution to the conflict in Syria to bring that conflict to an end.”

Hale said the international community understood how challenging the problem of Syrian refugees was for Lebanon.

“The numbers are dramatic, the burden on your society is huge, and yes, I do feel the responsibility as an ambassador in this country and my colleagues I know from other countries feel the same to make sure there is a strong international response to this problem.”

Hale said that sides contributing to the perpetuation of the Syrian regime were prolonging the conflict and contributing to the continuation of the spillover of its effects into Lebanon.

Hale said that Kerry was looking forward to seeing Sleiman and his delegation on the sidelines of Paris conference. “We have a lot to talk about.”

“The issues you are touching on: How can we help promote Lebanon’s policy and dissociation from the conflict in Syria, insulating Lebanon from these consequences, fighting terrorism, helping to support the refugee burden ... these are all top issues on our agenda together.”

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is accompanying Sleiman, met his French counterpart Laurent Fabius at the French Foreign Ministry.

After the meeting, Bassil described the meeting as “constructive.”

“There are common grounds and points of consensus between both sides,” Bassil said. “These include the agreement on the importance of stability in Lebanon and the necessity to establish a strong Army and fight terrorism.”

Fabius voiced his country’s readiness to work with Bassil to bolster ties between both countries, highlighting France’s commitment to the freedom, sovereignty, stability and unity of Lebanon and to supporting the Lebanese government.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 05, 2014, on page 1.

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