First Published: 2017-12-08

World leaders to 're-legitimise' Lebanon PM at Paris talks
French president warns against regional powers' 'meddling' in Lebanon's affairs, says its stability is 'crucial... for the entire region.'
Middle East Online

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday warned regional powers against meddling in Lebanon at an international meeting aimed at fending off pressure on the fragile country from rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the talks in Paris with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose shock resignation last month -- which he has since rescinded -- sparked fears of a new crisis in the Middle East.

Opening the meeting, Macron said it was "essential that all of the parties in Lebanon and regional actors respect the cardinal principle of non-interference" in the affairs of other countries.

Representatives from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, Italy and Egypt, were present for the show of support for Lebanon, which took place against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Middle East.

Hariri and Macron both emphasised their opposition to US President Donald Trump's announcement Wednesday that he would move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

"It complicates the peace process even more (between Israel and the Palestinians) and creates a new challenge to regional security," Hariri said in opening remarks at the meeting.

Macron added: "None of the region's problems will be resolved by unilateral decisions or the strongest imposing their will."

- Proxy battleground -

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim country, is suspected of having pressured Hariri, a longtime ally, to resign as part of its attempts to counter the growing influence of Iran, a Shia Muslim power.

The Saudi kingdom and other Arab states accuse Iran of using armed proxies such as Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement to advance its interests, from Lebanon to Yemen to Syria and Iraq.

In an televised resignation statement from Riyadh on November 4, Hariri accused Tehran and Hezbollah -- which has ministers in Hariri's government -- of destabilising his country and the region.

A Lebanese source close to Hariri said that the premier travelled to Riyadh believing he was going to discuss economic projects but instead "found himself faced with a list of economic sanctions brandished by the Saudis against Lebanon."

Hariri remained in Riyadh for two weeks afterwards, fuelling speculation that he was being held hostage.

Macron then intervened, inviting Hariri to Paris for talks, after which he returned home to a hero's welcome. Two weeks later, he withdrew his resignation.

The meeting ended with plans for three follow-up conferences: one in Paris in early 2018 on boosting investment in Lebanon; another in Rome on building up Lebanon's regular army; and a third in Brussels on helping the roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees that have fled there.

"Lebanon's stability is not only crucial for its inhabitants but for the entire region," Macron said Friday, demanding that the sovereignty of the small multifaith country, long a proxy battleground between its bigger neighbours, be respected.

Hariri said the fragile stability enjoyed by his country, which neighbours Syria, "appeared like a small miracle" in a region torn by the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts.

"The desire of all in Lebanon is to save our democracy," he said.

- Power play backfires -

Riyadh's power play in Lebanon backfired, with the various Lebanese factions coming together in order to avoid a political breakdown.

Hariri announced Tuesday that he would stay on as premier after cabinet members -- including from Hezbollah -- issued a joint statement to reaffirm their commitment to stay out of regional conflicts.

"Lebanon will respect this principle of keeping its distance (from trouble beyond its borders). You will see," he vowed Friday, insisting there was "no crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia".

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the principle "applied to all, both inside and outside (Lebanon)."

The International Support Group for Lebanon was launched in September 2013 partly in response to the huge influx of refugees from Syria.


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