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Lebanon concerned about spillover from US-led airstrikes on IS

During the Paris Conference, the Lebanese delegation expressed its concerns that the US-led airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will have repercussions for Lebanon — concerns that foreign ministers tried to alleviate.
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a joint news conference with Iraq?s acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani (not pictured) in Baghdad, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Ali Abbas/Pool (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR42T54

The Lebanese delegation carried its concerns about the US-led airstrikes on the Islamic State (IS) to the Paris Conference on Sept. 15-16. A source participating in the conference told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the negotiations between Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and his Western counterparts were candid and open, since Lebanon is primarily concerned with the war on terrorism and because IS has become a threat that jeopardizes the Lebanese state and people.

However, the Lebanese capacities in this regard are limited and modest. The concerns are serious, and there is fear that any strike against IS in Iraq might send more terrorists to Lebanon. The source told Al-Monitor that US Secretary of State John Kerry, who's primarily involved in the Paris Conference and whose country is spearheading the offense against IS, showed complete understanding for the Lebanese point of view. He even asked about the details and voiced his interest in helping.

As a result, Kerry and Bassil agreed on several points:

  • Lebanon is not required to make any contribution to the proposed project of airstrikes against IS. It's not supposed to offer money, men, weapons or logistical facilities for the attacking forces. The international community realizes that Lebanon cannot be burdened by this action.
  • Lebanon’s moral support in the international alliance against IS is important and necessary. There is insistence on its participation, even if it is just a participation in form. This is what pushed Kerry to urge his Lebanese counterpart to attend and participate in the UN Security Council’s session that started Sept. 22 to discuss the IS war project.
  • The United States and the West should persistently support the Lebanese army. This has become a more pressing need with the airstrikes on IS, in light of the aforementioned Lebanese concerns. 

According to the Lebanese source at the conference, Kerry seemed incapable of directly reassuring the Lebanese. He did not have clear answers about whether the US-led airstrikes on IS would eradicate the organization completely from Syria and Iraq, or would only partially hit it to the west of Baghdad and push it to move west toward Syria. He could not say whether the US-led operation might stray and attempt to topple the Syrian regime. This would wreak havoc on Syria, and Lebanon is worried that the chaos might spill over to its territory and its border with Israel, thus blowing up the situation in the entire region.

Although Kerry did not have clear answers to these concerns, he seemed interested in finding a way to shield the internal Lebanese situation to face any possible pressure arising from the airstrikes. The Lebanese delegation explained that the best way to ensure Lebanon’s protection would be through rebuilding its constitutional institutions and restructuring its official authorities in a democratically sound manner and through clear treaties. The aim is to form comprehensive authorities in which all Lebanese parties, led by the forces with the highest democratic representation, can participate.

The delegation also explained to Kerry that the path that started in February with the formation of the Lebanese government was supposed to move along three phases. First, a new president who both Muslims and Christians agree on should have been elected. Second, a new law for the parliamentary elections that guarantees fair representation — which has been debated for about 20 years in the successive electoral laws — should have been set. Finally, the elections should have been held, so that a complete Lebanese authority capable of facing the proposed challenges, is formed. This path should have ended in electing a president on May 25 with parliamentary elections by Nov. 20.

The Lebanese delegation explained to Kerry how obvious foreign interventions impeded this operation in its second phase, the presidential elections. As a result, the elections were frozen, and the Lebanese system threatened to collapse. The United States has a responsibility in this regard to pressure the Arab allies of Washington to lift the obstacles and restore the internal Lebanese process to avoid a vacuum or chaos in Beirut. If such chaos coincides with the war against IS, a catastrophe — whose span and repercussions are unpredictable — will befall Lebanon.

In the same context, Middle Eastern diplomatic sources operating in Beirut told Al-Monitor that the Lebanese delegation at the Paris Conference transmitted a message from Iran to the US delegation. The message was related to the airstrikes on IS and the potential margins of this action that would facilitate certain understandings on the ground between Washington and Tehran. While the official Lebanese parties did not comment on Al-Monitor’s information and neither confirmed nor denied them, it is noteworthy that upon Bassil’s return from Paris, he met with the US and Iranian ambassadors in Beirut.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic sources reasserted to Al-Monitor that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the attendees of the Paris Conference that Russia’s stance can be summarized as follows: Russia has reservations regarding the war, as it is, against IS; it refuses to participate in this war in its current shape and most importantly, it is fully ready to deter any shift in the path of this war from fighting terrorism to attempting to topple any government in the region.

Moscow approved UN Security Council Resolution 1970, issued on Feb. 26, 2011, to impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya, for reasons it considered to be in the humanitarian interest. But the West and NATO used this resolution as a cover to carry out airstrikes that eventually led to the fall of the regime. This was followed by unlimited chaos. Moscow has clearly learned its lesson from this Libyan scenario, and will not accept its recurrence.

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