What’s going on in Lebanon besides CEDRE Reforms and Syrian Refugees?

Friday, April 5, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The more than 200 agenda items for the first three meetings of the Council of Ministers demonstrate that business as usual is just not going to suffice. In addition to the reforms and regulations related to qualifying for the CEDRE loans, grants, and guarantees, there were quite a few internal administrative items. These covered a variety of issues, from travel abroad to subsidies and protection for consumer-related concerns that ranged from healthcare to certain agricultural products.

The devolved powers that accrued to the council of ministers under the Taif Agreement’s recalibration of the country’s power-sharing make it critical that there be a robust bureaucracy in place with authority to implement approved policies. However, Lebanon’s culture of micromanagement to ensure the appropriate allocation of government resources (spoils, would be more accurate) means continued bottlenecks until a more neutral and fact-based decision-making process is adopted.

Most recently, the LAF received another shipment of equipment from the US. This time it was an $11 million package of six drones, which follows up an earlier shipment this year of $16 million worth of laser-guided smart missiles. This continuation of the strong ties between the US and Lebanon is facing pressure from Russia, which is lobbying Lebanon to have a higher profile in their bilateral military and economic affairs.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Zasypkin recently spoke at LAU and mentioned that “his country was interested in building new power plants in Lebanon,” and offered “his country’s readiness to help Lebanon in solving the electricity crisis through building modern power stations.” His statement comes amid ongoing Lebanese government meetings with the Prime Minister to discuss how to best solve the energy crisis. There are several layers of challenges: the regulatory environment, clarity about fees and charges, the need for transparent bidding processes, timeframe and financing of infrastructure, and how to deal with the current producers, either off-shore barges or the unlicensed generator operators. It is anticipated that the relevant parliamentary committees will receive a plan for approval by the end of April.

While he was in Moscow, President Michel Aoun discussed his support for Russia’s resettlement initiative for the return of Syrian refugees. The plan is floundering at present due to suspicions that Russia wants to establish mechanisms that trade reconstruction dollars from the West for incremental resettlement of Syrian refugees in areas controlled and dictated by the Assad regime. Despite Russian claims that it will engage with the international community in the effort, so far there has been little revealed of how it would actually work, and especially since the Syrian regime has not given its blessing to the initiative.

A group of Lebanese government officials and parliamentarians are on their way to the US to participate in the annual World Bank/IMF meetings. The delegation will also meet with US government officials and attend the American Task Force for Lebanon Gala, which is honoring four prominent Lebanese-Americans: the Hon. Alex M. Azar II, US Secretary of Health and Human Services; The Hon. Darin LaHood, Representative from Illinois; Peter Rahal, CEO and co-founder of RXBAR; and David Yazbek, noted writer, composer, and Broadway producer.

Among the visiting Lebanese dignitaries is H.E. Yassine Jaber, head of Parliament’s committee on Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. He noted in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the delegation would take the opportunity to hold meetings with US officials “to explain the Lebanese situation and review regional developments…” He also “stressed that Washington supported the Lebanese army and institutions, pointing out that the country needed this material and moral support in light of the current economic crisis and the difficulties and challenges it faces at all levels.”

This concern with challenges faced by Lebanon brings up the issue of the US government’s position on Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and how the delegation might respond if the issue is raised. In an attempt to shore up the distinction between Amal as a political party and Hezbollah, Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, recently met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. Sistani is regarded as a Shiite leader who promoted cooperation and moderation among communities in Iraq and is unsettled by Iran’s interference in the country.

According to the news report, Sistani told Berri, “It’s important for everyone to work on establishing values of peaceful coexistence based on protection of rights and mutual respect between the different religious and ethnic components in our region, to provide security, stability, progress and prosperity for its peoples.”

It seems Berri, during his visit to Iraq, wanted to send the message that his Amal Movement is different from Hezbollah, and gain Sistani’s support against any possible sanctions. How this will play out among US officials is unknown although the US has cooperated with Sistani in Iraq in the past in seeking to defuse tensions with the Sunni and Kurdish communities.