PM, Tammam Salam urges France to expedite delivery of much-needed arms
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star/Dec. 11, 2014
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam pleaded with France Wednesday to expedite the delivery to the Lebanese Army of arms paid for by a $3 billion Saudi grant, to help Lebanon face Islamist militants who are threatening the country’s security and stability.
Speaking in Paris at the start of a four-day official visit to France, Salam warned that Lebanon was going through one of the most dangerous periods in its history, due to the accumulation of political and socioeconomic crises, aggravated by the flow of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees into Lebanon.
Salam also said former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement had decided to engage in dialogue with Hezbollah to reduce Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon. Hariri is “a major player in Lebanese politics and represents nearly 90 percent of one of the major Lebanese sects,” he said.
A preliminary session of the planned dialogue between the Future Movement and Hezbollah will be held before the end of this month, while serious talks will begin early next year, a Future MP said.
“Preparations are underway to get the Future-Hezbollah dialogue off the ground early next year. But a preliminary session between the two sides will be held before the end of the month,” Future MP Atef Majdalani told The Daily Star.
He said the Future-Hezbollah talks were primarily aimed at defusing Sunni-Shiite tensions stoked by differences over the conflict in Syria.
“[Former] Prime Minister Saad Hariri has drawn up an agenda for this dialogue by excluding strategic matters, such as Hezbollah’s arms and the party’s intervention in the Syrian fighting,” Majdalani said. “An inter-Lebanese dialogue is designed to pave the way for the election of a presidents.”
Speaker Nabih Berri said he was still optimistic about the outcome of the Future-Hezbollah talks. “Matters are on the right track,” MPs who met Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence quoted him as saying.
Parliament failed for the 16th time Wednesday to elect a president due to a lack of quorum, prompting Berri to postpone the session until Jan. 7. Wednesday marked 200 days since former President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term ended on May 25 and Lebanon was left without a president.
Only 59 lawmakers showed up for the session, well below the two-thirds majority of Parliament’s 128 members needed to convene the session.
Salam said France would provide its final signature to activate the Saudi-funded $3 billion military aid package for the Lebanese Army in three days.
“On the 13th of this month, the final papers between France and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be signed, so that France could start delivering the weapons to Lebanon,” Salam told reporters during a flight to Paris.
The aid package was announced last December by Sleiman. The $3 billion deal will be used to buy French weapons, equipment and vehicles for the Lebanese Army and to pay for military training.
Speaking before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French National Assembly after his arrival in Paris, Salam called on France to speed up the arms deliveries, especially the helicopters and missiles, as he said they were critical in the Army’s confrontation with jihadis on Lebanon’s eastern borders.
Referring to repeated clashes between the Army and ISIS and Nusra Front militants who are still holding 25 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage, Salam said: “There are attacks on the eastern border and there are kidnapped soldiers. We need weapons and military aid to confront those extremists.”
He warned that Lebanon faced an accumulation of political and socio-economic crises.
“There is a political and institutional crisis that we are trying to control by maintaining Cabinet unity,” Salam said, referring to the deadlock that has left Lebanon without a president for more than six months. “This crisis is accompanied by economic and social difficulties brought on by the huge flow of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, who make up more than one third of the Lebanese population.
“The challenges facing Lebanon transcend the economic, political and security framework, taking an existential character and threatening the foundation stone of the country, which is considered as a model of [sectarian] coexistence.” He called on the rival political factions to elect a new president as soon as possible.
Salam, accompanied by Defense Minister Samir Moqbel and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, is scheduled to hold talks with French President Francois Hollande and other senior officials.
Meanwhile, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri stressed that a consensus among rival Christian leaders was the key to ending the presidential deadlock.
“The election of a president is a national responsibility. The most effective way to achieve that is through a consensus among Christian leaders on the name of a candidate who would then be proposed to Parliament,” Asiri said after receiving a delegation from the Maronite League who visited him at the embassy.
Asiri contended that Lebanon is need of dialogue among its different political components, “including inter-Christian dialogue that would narrow divisions among Christian groups and help achieve the overall national interest.”