Read original at The Daily Star
James Haines-Young| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: During the second day of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit to the U.S. Wednesday, the State Department announced a further $140 million assistance package to help Lebanon manage the Syrian refugee crisis after a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The day after Hariri met with President Donald Trump for over an hour, he met with Tillerson early Wednesday to discuss regional and local Lebanese issues. “The top of our agenda is going to be, as you would expect, Syria and regional security issues,” Tillerson told reporters as the pair met at the State Department. “I know the prime minister had a very, very positive meeting with President Trump yesterday, and we look forward [to] building out on some of the details from that.”
After the meeting, Hariri headed to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace center to deliver a speech, accompanied by members of the Lebanese delegation that includes Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil.
In his speech, Hariri touched on a number of internal issues in Lebanon and the region, including the work he has been doing to stabilize the country and fight extremism. He also emphasized the positive role that Lebanon can play across a region beset with challenges.
“In a region fraught with religious and sectarian violence, in a world where coexistence between Islam and Christianity is increasingly portrayed as impossible, Lebanon offers a model,” he said.
He added that in a region of with many authoritarian leaders, Lebanon offered an alternative – although still flawed – democratic vision. “In a region where despair is becoming the norm, where economic and social horizons are bleak, Lebanon offers a model of resilience, creativity and initiative.”Following the speech, Hariri took questions, including concerns over U.S. funding for the Lebanese Army, the country’s aspirational oil and gas sector and the ongoing Syrian crisis.
Talking about the oil and gas sector, he said he had hoped there would be more interest from U.S. firms in bidding for exploratory drilling tenders.
Lebanon has no current proven, viable reserves of oil or gas and only drilling will ascertain if it does but there are strong indications and the government has opened tenders for companies to bid on assigned blocks.
In response to questions about cuts to the roughly $80 million annual U.S. funding for the Army, Hariri said it was brought up in his meeting with Trump and assured the audience that he believed the American government had a clear picture of the situation in Lebanon. He stated the importance of the long-term partnership between the U.S. and Lebanon and their joint fight against terrorism.
On the Syrian crisis, Hariri said there had been exaggeration regarding the victory of the regime of Bashar Assad. He added that while it was fair to say Russia or Iran had won in Syria, Assad’s regime had “definitely lost.”
During his speech, he talked at length about the fallout of hosting large numbers of refugees, saying “in a world incapable of accommodating refugees in the thousands, Lebanon – with a population of 4 million – has nearly 1.5 million Syrian displaced, added to about 500,000 Palestinian refugees – a ratio of one to two.” This, he said, represented a “public good to the world.”
He explained that while Lebanon was facing numerous issues and threats, some were being dealt with internally and others would take the assistance of the international community to tackle.
Turning to the internal political situation, he said: “Lebanon is emerging from 10-years of political deadlock that has polarized the country and led to economic inaction and erosion of investor confidence.”
He laid out the dire situation Lebanon faced just a year ago in which political deadlock was leading to “low capital inflows, slow growth and the negative repercussions of the Syria conflict.”
He contrasted that with the situation today after the election of President Michel Aoun on Oct. 31, 2016. “Political life has been returned to normal.”
He then laid out his four priorities between now and elections slated for next spring. This included “jumpstarting” economic growth through private sector activity, maintaining fiscal responsibility, mitigating the pressures of hosting Syrian refugees and launching a national capital investment program.
Expanding on his plan to improve the economy, he said that building a buzzing IT industry, a growing start-up ecosystem and looking toward an oil and gas industry were key. He pointed to the passage of the first state budget since 2005 as an indicator of prudent fiscal responsibility as well as initiatives to boost tax gathering.
This, he said, would help pave the way for the roughly $12 billion long-term capital investment program that was being “finalized.” Hariri added that this would allow the government to boost spending on defense and security in the fight against extremism.
On the issue of refugees, he said that although there was significant international assistance, the country was still facing a huge task and the signs of wear were starting to show.
“We have recently witnessed signs of fatigue in host communities as tensions with the Syrian displaced are rising. The situation is frankly a ticking time bomb,” Hariri said. However, he again ruled out forcing Syrians to return home while saying that he supported their going back voluntarily.
Offering a glimmer of hope to the troubles besetting the region, he said that “despair can only be fought with hope, with resilience, with creativity – all values for which Lebanon is also a model.”