France prepares to seal Lebanon arms deal

Published Tuesday, March 4, 2014

France is preparing to seal a multi-billion-dollar plan to help bolster Lebanon's armed forces in a deal sponsored by Saudi Arabia.

At a meeting to take place in Paris on Wednesday, the so-called International Support Group for Lebanon, which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, will also assemble more help for almost 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and create a fund to mitigate the economic fallout from Syria's conflict.

The Paris meeting will go ahead with the foreign ministers of the five veto-wielding Security Council members – France, United States, Russia, Britain and China – attending.

Saudi Arabia was also invited. It donated $3 billion in December for upgrades to the Lebanese army and asked France to supply weapons using a large proportion of these funds.

No other big Security Council power has yet said what if anything they will offer, although Washington has previously provided assistance to the Lebanese military.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman is to make a general appeal for help at the meeting ahead of planned presidential elections before his term expires in May.

Diplomatic sources said France was set to supply hardware to Lebanon's military ranging from communications gear to helicopters, tanks and long-range anti-tank missiles.

Saudi Arabia may be seeking to bolster the army as a counterbalance to Hezbollah, the most effective and powerful armed group in Lebanon which is funded by Iran.

Lebanon, with a weak government and threadbare national infrastructure even before the Syrian crisis erupted almost three years ago, has struggled to support refugees who have swelled the existing population of 4 million.

The World Bank estimates Lebanon will need $2.6 billion over three years just to handle the refugee situation. Western countries have been reluctant to assist by giving money directly to Lebanon's government given the internal turmoil.

As well, the Paris meeting will launch a World Bank trust fund to back development projects in Lebanese communities under strain from the refugee influx. The fund will initially total $50 million with seed money from the World Bank and grants from Norway and Finland, the French diplomatic source said.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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