Lebanon News

Salam: an optimist with a heavy burden

Prime Minister Tammam Salam speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam said Wednesday that a genuine commitment to dissociation from Syria’s crisis would improve security in Lebanon, adding that facilitating his government’s mission was the responsibility of all parties represented on the Cabinet.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with The Daily Star, Salam said that each of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions were closely following the developments in Syria, which was creating tension in the country.

“The success of our government in reducing this political tension, which could always translate into a deterioration in security, hinges on the commitment of all parties to the policy of dissociation from the Syrian crisis as stipulated by the policy statement,” Salam said.

“This requires efforts, by all political factions participating in the government, to prioritize the higher national interest.”

The prime minister said that while adherence to the dissociation policy would help to protect stability in the country, heightened security on the ground was necessary as well.

“There is a need for strict security measures under the law in order to address any deterioration once it happens, along with other pre-emptive measures to thwart sabotage plans,” Salam said.

He said that such measures would restore the prestige of the state and significantly reduce security threats.

“The Lebanese have experienced such steps when implemented by our government in Arsal and the surrounding region and they were successful. We hope that similar measures will be taken soon in other areas that are witnessing security incidents,” Salam said.

Last week, the Lebanese Army deployed in the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal and reopened the road linking it to neighboring Labweh, after residents of that town blocked the route in protest against rockets that hit their village. Labweh locals argued that they were fired upon from the mountainous outskirts of Arsal.

Labweh residents are largely supportive of Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad to quash a three-year rebellion, while Arsal’s mainly Sunni residents sympathize with the opposition.

Lebanon has witnessed a wave of bombings linked to Syria’s war in recent months. The attacks have mainly targeted Shiite areas associated with Hezbollah.

Salam added that the anticipated range of presidential candidates demonstrated a healthy breadth of political representation.

“I will not make predictions on whether the upcoming president will be elected within the constitutional period,” Salam said. “All that I want to say is our government has expressed in its policy statement its commitment to provide the suitable atmosphere to hold the presidential election on time, out of respect for the Constitution and the principle of transition of power, and it will stick to this commitment.”

The two-month constitutional period to elect Lebanon’s new president began Tuesday. There are fears that a president will not be elected on time, forcing a repeat of the situation in 2007, when rival March 8 and March 14 coalitions failed to agree on a single candidate and plunged the country into a six-month power vacuum.

The prime minister said he believed that a greater harm resulting from Syria’s war was the presence of over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

“Lebanon cannot shoulder this burden alone and it is in need of help from sisterly and friend states along with donors,” Salam said. “We are waiting for the support for Lebanon expressed during the recent Paris conference to materialize.”

Earlier this month, the International Support Group for Lebanon promised to work closely with the Lebanese government to manage the refugee crisis. The ISGL, which comprises a number of states including the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, last year established a multi-donor trust fund to help Lebanon cope with the influx of Syrian refugees. The fund is managed by the World Bank.

“We in the government adhere to our commitment in the policy statement to lay down the necessary mechanisms to address the issue of refugees and hold the Arab and international community responsible in this regard,” Salam said.

Acknowledging that his mission as the head of the national unity government was not easy, Salam said he hoped that the parties in his Cabinet would facilitate its work.

“I am totally aware of how complicated the situation is and of the fact that political parties are at odds over all local and external issues,”he said.

“But I rely on these same parties to facilitate the work of the government through adherence to the path of consensus, something which led to the birth of the Cabinet of national interest.”

“I am optimistic ... and the positive attitude and enthusiasm demonstrated by ministers are promising.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 27, 2014, on page 1.




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