Expectations low for Paris conference on Lebanon
In Paris, on March 5-6, a political conference organized by the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) will be held. The conference comes in the context of the major effort to support Lebanon, an effort that the ISG launched on Sept. 25, 2013, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
1. Supporting Lebanon economically, especially to face repercussions of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon’s economy. One of the first decisions in that regard, and in light of recommendations by the World Bank, which prepared a report on that, is the establishment of a trust fund to deal with the flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon. Their number has far exceeded what the Lebanese economy can bear, and they now threaten the sustainability of the Lebanese entity, which is based on a delicate sectarian balance.
2. Building the capabilities of the Lebanese army. This is achieved by the Saudi-French partnership to arm the Lebanese army with French weapons using Saudi funding. The program extends over four years and is worth $3 billion.
3. Supporting the Lebanese political process by supporting state institutions, which are in danger of being hollowed out. The formation of the Lebanese government was a culmination of these efforts. The government’s formation was due to efforts by supporting parties, which moved along the Paris-Washington-Riyadh line, with Tehran nearby. It is no exaggeration to say the circumstances that accompanied the formation process were affected by the Iranian-US atmosphere of openness. But it must be said that the government settlement was the minimum needed to avoid a government vacuum in form only. The inability of the parties within the government to agree on a ministerial statement until now is evidence of the fundamental problems hindering internal consensus and preventing the rise of a functioning and capable state in Lebanon.
The question today is what the forthcoming conference can actually achieve. In other words, what can be expected of that conference considering that the circumstances are not yet ripe for a regional settlement, as evidenced by the stalled Geneva II negotiations and the continued fighting, or rather escalation, in Syria.
The aim of the Paris conference can be summarized in one word: neutrality — that is, neutralizing Lebanon regarding the conflict in Syria. The international community adopting the Baabda Declaration was remarkable and gave the declaration an international legitimacy that outweighs that of the interior. Ironically, the international community has met under the UN umbrella and adopted the Baabda Declaration, while the Lebanese government itself is unable to adopt it in its ministerial statement.
The committee entrusted with preparing the ministerial statement has finished its sixth meeting without reaching an agreement. It is still stuck on this point specifically. The issue is that Hezbollah still insists on keeping its fighters in Syria. This means that the settlement led by the ISG either did not address or failed to address this issue, which thus stayed outside the settlement. The decision to withdraw from Syria is primarily an Iranian decision and thus requires a different settlement using a different negotiating framework.
Everybody knows that the security vulnerability of the Lebanese arena, the lawlessness and terrorism striking the depth of Shiite neighborhoods is linked to the situation in Syria and to Hezbollah fighting alongside the regime.
Hence, the settlement that produced the government has been unable to produce a governing program or a political base for sustainable stability. Here’s the question: What can the Paris conference accomplish?
The conference will activate the mechanisms for the financial support, especially since several parties have not yet paid the dues they pledged to Lebanon to support Syrian refugees. The conference may also announce the details of subsequent conferences to be held in Rome, to continue the program of building the capabilities of the Lebanese army. Regarding the political process, the challenge is to elect a new president by the constitutional deadline, which ends in May.
The efforts of the ISG may be limited to filling the presidential vacuum, without addressing the conditions to make the next president successful or stabilize Lebanon. Until now, these are the limits of any possible settlement and of what the dialogue will allow. All the parties may agree on the need to confront a common enemy, the imminent and new danger of terrorism represented by the growing jihadist groups. But the agreement will not go beyond identifying the enemy and will not address the problems from their roots.
The ISG will likely announce its support for neutralizing Lebanon and for the Baabda Declaration. But implementing that declaration is another matter, and the time is not yet ripe for that. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will likely stay in its existential fight of protecting its strategic side in Syria. And Hezbollah’s enemies will keep verbally opposing Hezbollah’s presence in Syria, even though they do not really mind seeing the party stuck in the Syrian morass.Sami Nader