BEIRUT: Departing British Ambassador Tom Fletcher believes Lebanon’s biggest challenge in the coming year will be keeping “the Syrian war on the other side of the border.”
“That’s going to be a tough and constant effort,” he added.
In a wide-reaching briefing with The Daily Star and other reporters, Fletcher made no bones about his feelings regarding Iran’s role in Lebanon. “I think it’s a real shame that Iran is sending Lebanese kids to die for Assad,” Fletcher said flatly.
“I would much prefer that the Lebanese people as a whole were within their borders ... supporting the Army to defend the borders,” he added. “What we need is all these regional players to stop ... sending out weapons into Syria and men into Syria to fight, and to work for a political solution.”
He expressed hope that the Iran nuclear deal would allow for “those kinds of conversations.”
On the domestic front Fletcher lamented the deep political divisions that end up hurting Lebanese citizens. “There is still a tendency with some players here to play a zero-sum game; that they’d almost rather neutralize a project if it’s someone else’s project than let it go through for the sake of Lebanon,” he explained.
Although Lebanon faces a number of ongoing challenges as he leaves his post, Fletcher was also quick to point out the successes of his four years as ambassador.
Fletcher has brought education in Lebanon to the forefront of the bilateral relationship.
Under his mandate, the U.K. pledged 60 million pounds ($93.5 million) toward funding education in Lebanon for programs lasting up to five years. For the past two years, a portion of that sum has been used to fund textbooks for every student in Lebanon aged 5 to 16.
The vast majority of that sum will be channeled through the Education Ministry to help improve the public school system in Lebanon.
Citing problems with “governance and accountability in the past,” Fletcher acknowledged that the close partnership with the Education Ministry may be a gamble.
“It was a risk to work through the government,” he said.
“It’s a risk [and] we don’t know if it will pay off.”
But spurred by the Syrian crisis and massive influx of school-aged refugees into an already ailing education system, now may be the perfect moment for the government and the Education Ministry to enact much needed reforms, Fletcher said.
In the very least, the crisis has attracted “resources and attention” toward the Lebanese school system, he said.
Educating vulnerable children in Lebanon, regardless of their nationality, is more than just a moral imperative, Fletcher said, adding that there are still 500,000 children out of school in the country.
“Imagine them in 10 years if they get educated ... Then imagine them in 10 years if they don’t get educated – that’s a pretty frightening thought. Those kids would be much more easily radicalized ... creating dangers here but also inside Europe and elsewhere,” he said. “This is a problem that will not just go away.”
On the subject of refugees, Fletcher said that Lebanon has borne an incredible burden and that the British government has been an important international partner during this trying time.
In the past four years the U.K. has increased hundredfold its overall support to Lebanon from 2 million to 200 million pounds a year.
A significant portion of that funding goes toward supporting both Syrian refugees in Lebanon and needy host communities.
Aside from aid, Fletcher said business between Lebanon and the United Kingdom has doubled over the past four years. Linking British manufacturers with Lebanese exporters and wholesalers has been particularly fruitful. “Like a matchmaking agency, we’ve tried to connect people who want to be connected” between the two countries, he explained.
But not all business opportunities have proved ripe.
Upon assuming his post, Fletcher said he was “very enthusiastic” about pitching Lebanon’s oil and gas sector to U.K. companies. The potential for exploiting offshore gas, he said, is enormous.
“You get excited about the potential of that, and yet here we are no further in these four years,” Fletcher said.
Domestic politics, he added, was the main reason why the country’s oil and gas projects have stalled.
“A lot of that has been about the political paralysis ... Often it’s always very easy to find some external force to blame, some conspiracy to blame, but there’s no external conspiracy that’s stopping the Lebanese drill for gas,” he said.
But on the whole, Fletcher said he is leaving Lebanon “optimistic.”
“Everyone told me when I arrived that Lebanon would be the graveyard of my idealism, and it hasn’t been yet. But there’s still four weeks to go,” he joked.