x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lebanon's new PM pledges to shield Lebanon from Syria dangers

Tammam Salam is close to the Saudi- and western-backed March 14 coalition but was chosen as a consensus candidate acceptable to the March 8 bloc, which includes Hizbollah and its allies.

Tammam Salam was sworn in on Saturday as Lebanon's prime minister. Sharif Karim / Reuters
Tammam Salam was sworn in on Saturday as Lebanon's prime minister. Sharif Karim / Reuters

BEIRUT // Lebanon's new prime minister pledged to shield the country from the spillover of Syria's civil war after being was sworn on Saturday as the sixth premier since 2005.

Tammam Salam was named prime minister in a sweeping parliamentary endorsement. He was designated after the resignation of Najib Mikati, whose two years as prime minister were dominated by efforts to contain sectarian tensions, violence and economic fallout from the Syrian conflict.

"There is a need to bring Lebanon out of its state of division and political fragmentation, as reflected on the security situation, and to ward off the risks brought by the tragic situation in the neighbouring country and by regional tensions," he said.

Mr Salam, 68, of the western-backed opposition, made the remarks in his inaugural speech shortly after being tasked by President Michel Suleiman with forming a new government.

His next task will be to prepare for a parliamentary election which is due in June but faces delay.

The Syrian bloodshed has exacerbated tensions in Lebanon, which fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990. Rival Sunni and Shiite and Christian politicians have failed to agree an electoral system under which the vote will take place.

Mr Salam, born in 1945 into a prominent Sunni political dynasty, is close to the Saudi- and Western-backed March 14 coalition but was chosen as a consensus candidate acceptable to the March 8 bloc, which includes Hizbollah and its mainly Shiite and Christian allies.

March 14 groups mainly Sunni and Christian parties which pushed, with US and European support, for Syria to end nearly three decades of military presence in Lebanon in 2005.

Referring to speculation over whether his government should be a short-term technocratic administration focused only on preparing for elections, or a 'national unity' government with longer-term ambition, Mr Salam said: "I will absolutely strive to form a government of national benefit".

In a sign of shifting foreign influence in Lebanon, whose politicians lived in the shadow of Damascus long after President Bashar Al Assad withdrew his army eight years ago, Mr Salam's elevation appeared to owe much to Saudi intervention.

The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose announcement on Thursday that he backed March 14's nomination guaranteed Mr Salam a parliamentary majority, said he reached his decision after talks with Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

In an editorial, the pro-Damascus Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar accused Riyadh of pushing Mr Salam's nomination as a "counter-coup" against Syria and its ally Hizbollah.

"Riyadh is contemplating returning to Lebanon though a counter-coup," said Al-Akhbar, referring to a 2011 "coup" by Hizbollah against former premier Saad Hariri's March 14 government.

That year Hizbollah withdrew from Mr Hariri's national unity government, causing its collapse, after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon named four Hizbollah members as suspects in the killing of the premier's father, Rafiq Hariri.

Pro-opposition newspaper An-Nahar also described Riyadh's role as a Saudi "coup".

Despite the overwhelming support for Salam - he was backed by 124 of 128 parliamentarians - he may face a lengthy struggle to form a government. His predecessor, Mr Mikati, took five months assemble a ministerial team and a March 8 source said Mr Salam could also take months to put together a cabinet.

He has to satisfy conflicting demands for portfolios amid a heightened political standoff over the Syrian crisis.

March 14 strongly supports the mainly Sunni rebels battling to overthrow Mr Al Assad in a conflict which the United Nations says has killed 70,000 people. Another 400,000 refugees have poured into Lebanon, a country of 4 million.

March 8 has backed Mr Al Assad's campaign to crush the uprising, which began with mainly peaceful protests but descended into a civil war which has reduced parts of its main cities to rubble.

Lebanon has been shaken by the violence, which has spilt across the border into the Bekaa Valley and inflamed tensions in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunnis who actively support the Syrian rebels and members of Mr Al Assad's minority Alawite community.

Dozens of people have been killed in Tripoli in waves of street fighting since 2011.

Before his resignation, Mr Mikati called for international aid to help Lebanon deal with the ever-growing number of refugees. Mr Suleiman, the president, called this week for refugee camps to be set up inside Syria itself, under United Nations auspices, to ease the burden on Syria's neighbours.

Mr Salam, a cabinet minister from 2008 to 2009, is the son of former prime minister Saeb Salam. His grandfather served under the Ottoman Empire and the French colonial mandate.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse