x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Hariri to discuss Lebanon stability with UN support group in Paris

The support group, which is made up of representatives from the UN Security Council’s five member countries, was expected to discuss how to help stabilise Lebanon in the wake of a month of political turmoil that began when prime minister Saad Hariri said he would resign in a shock announcement

Lebanese president Michel Aoun (R) and prime minister Saad Hariri attend the first cabinet meeting since Mr Hariri's return, at the presidential palace of Baabda, east of Beirut, on December 5, 2017. Dalati Nohra / EPA
Lebanese president Michel Aoun (R) and prime minister Saad Hariri attend the first cabinet meeting since Mr Hariri's return, at the presidential palace of Baabda, east of Beirut, on December 5, 2017. Dalati Nohra / EPA

After formally withdrawing his resignation earlier this week, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri was set to attend a meeting on Friday in Paris with members of the United Nations International Support Group for Lebanon.

The group, which is made up of representatives from the UN Security Council’s five member countries — the United States, China, France, Russia and the UK — was expected to discuss how to help stabilise Lebanon in the wake of a month of political turmoil that began when Mr Hariri said he would resign in a shock announcement.

In a sharply-worded resignation speech delivered while he was on a trip to Saudi Arabia last month, Mr Hariri attacked the influence of both Iran and Hizbollah in the region.

Hizbollah is the only Lebanese political party to have maintained a militia since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990, with the intent of deterring Israeli aggression against Lebanon. That mission has support across the Lebanese political spectrum, but the group’s alliance with Iran and its growing political influence and military strength after its successful intervention on behalf of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the war next door played a role in Mr Hariri’s resignation.

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Lebanese leaders, including members of Mr Hariri’s political bloc, accused Saudi Arabia of forcing Mr Hariri to resign in order to put pressure on Hizbollah and Iran. The Saudi government has provided support for rebels seeking to overthrow Mr Al Assad and also accuses Hizbollah and Iran of intervening in the Yemeni war, a conflict that has pitted pro-government forces — backed by a Saudi-led military coalition against the Houthi rebels. Riyadh denies forcing Mr Hariri to resign, however.

Mr Hariri remained outside of Lebanon for nearly three weeks after his announcement, citing fears of assassination. His father, who also served as prime minister of Lebanon, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005, an attack that many Lebanese attribute to Hizbollah and the Syrian government.

Even before his return, Mr Hariri signalled he might be willing to withdraw his resignation if Hizbollah were willing to agree to stop interfering in regional conflicts, a policy referred to in Lebanon as “disassociation”.

While it is unlikely the group will withdraw its fighters from Syria any time in the near future, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said last month the group would withdraw its fighters who were assisting the Iraqi government in its fight against ISIL.

Meanwhile, the group turned its attention back to Israel on Thursday, saying US president Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital the day before was a "treacherous and malicious aggression" against the rights of Palestinians and that the only way to restore rights was through armed "resistance".

Lebanese president Michel Aoun never formally accepted Mr Hariri’s resignation, citing his absence from Lebanon when it was made. The Lebanese cabinet met on Tuesday for the first time since Mr Hariri returned, and on Wednesday he affirmed that the detente between his political bloc and Hizbollah’s would continue.

“We and Hizbollah are at odds on several issues that we couldn’t agree on and we had two choices: either to step up our political differences and raise the level of tensions in the country or recognise that we are at odds with Hizbollah and start taking care of the economic issues, the displaced, the services,” Mr Hariri said.

A European diplomat told Reuters earlier this week that the aim of the support group meeting in Paris would be "to put pressure on the Saudis and Iranians", to stop interfering in Lebanese politics.

The diplomat added that the meeting would also focus on reinforcing “disassociation”.

The support group last met on November 10 in Lebanon, a week after Mr Hariri’s announcement. It is currently led by Danish diplomat Pernille Dahler Kardel, who replaced Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands in October.

The support group was launched in 2013 to “to help mobilise support and assistance for Lebanon’s stability, sovereignty and state institutions and to specifically encourage assistance for the Lebanese Army, Syrian refugees in Lebanon and host communities and government programmes and public services impacted by the Syrian crisis”, according to its website.

* Additional reporting by Reuters