Military deal with Russia imminent
Cabinet meets Tuesday to discuss cooperation agreement and 44 other agenda items
BEIRUT: The Cabinet is set to meet this week to clear the way for the signing of a military cooperation agreement between Lebanon and Russia, official sources said Sunday, in the government’s latest effort to reinforce the Lebanese Army’s capabilities.
To be chaired by President Michel Aoun at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Baabda Palace, the Cabinet will discuss 45 agenda items, including those left from last week’s session. The agenda includes loans to implement a number of projects, an official source said.
“The most important topic on the agenda is the signing of a military cooperation agreement between Lebanon and Russia,” the source told The Daily Star.
The Cabinet will authorize Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf to visit Moscow in April to sign the agreement with his Russian counterpart, the source said.
There were no immediate details on what such an agreement would entail and what kind of weapons Russia might provide to Lebanon.
The Daily Star’s efforts to reach Sarraf for comment were unsuccessful. Other officials were unreachable.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk have visited Moscow separately and held talks with senior Russian officials focusing on weapons supplies to the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces.
During an official visit to Moscow last September, Hariri urged Russia to support the Lebanese Army and called for greater economic and military cooperation between the two countries.
“We want greater economic and political Lebanese-Russian cooperation. This is my first visit to Russia as a prime minister and I am determined to develop the economic and military relations,” Hariri told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a live media conference before the pair sat down for talks.
Noting that Lebanon was actively engaged in the fight against terrorism, Hariri said that the Lebanese Army had been victorious in its offensive last year in expelling Daesh (ISIS) militants from Lebanon’s northeastern border and hence, there was a need to help strengthen its capabilities and that of its security agencies.
In addition to Lavrov, Hariri had also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, discussing with them boosting bilateral relations.
Russian media reports said that Moscow and Beirut began in early February discussing an agreement to allow port visits by Russian naval forces and military aircraft to Lebanese facilities.
There was no Lebanese confirmation of these reports.
On Feb. 3, the Russian government directed the Defense Ministry to conclude an agreement with Lebanon on increased military cooperation, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor reported.
Signed by the Russian premier, the draft agreement proposes the use of Lebanese facilities by the Russian military, a broader exchange of military information, along with deepening bilateral cooperation on international security issues and deepening collaboration against terrorism and piracy, the monitor said, quoting the Russian news agency Interfax.
According to the decree, objectives of the planned cooperation also include the joint training of troops. Additional areas of collaboration contain proposals to enhance information and engineering support, military education and medicine, military topography and hydrography, as well as cooperation in search and rescue at sea.
It is envisaged that the agreement will be signed for a period of five years with an automatic extension for subsequent five-year periods, unless one of the parties expresses the intention to terminate the agreement.
Meanwhile, Lebanon is stepping up preparations for the CEDRE conference scheduled to be held in Paris next month aimed at propping up Lebanon’s struggling economy and aging infrastructure.
“I am now in Paris and will meet tomorrow [Monday] with French officials as part of ongoing preparations for the CEDRE conference,” Economy Minister Raed Khoury told The Daily Star by phone from Paris Sunday.
Asked whether the CEDRE conference, also known as Paris IV conference, would be as successful as the Rome II conference in support of the Lebanese Army and security forces, Khoury said: “Things are on the right track.”
Boosted by the success of the Rome II conference held in the Italian capital on March 15 during which France promised to provide a 400 million euro ($493 million) line of credit to purchase weapons and equipment for the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces, the Cabinet last week endorsed Lebanon’s blueprint, the Capital Investment Program, to be presented to the CEDRE conference set to be held in Paris on April 6.
The CEDRE conference is designed to drum up international support to bolster Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure through investment projects and soft loans. It is one of three international conferences aimed at supporting Lebanon.
A third international conference, to be held in Brussels later in the spring, will focus on support for Syrian refugees in the region, including Lebanon, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, according to government estimates.
Hariri said last week that Lebanon was seeking $6 billion for a five-year infrastructure program at the CEDRE conference. The government’s 10-year program is reported to require $10 billion, of which Hariri said up to $4 billion would come through public-private partnerships.
The government is also facing international pressure to ratify the 2018 draft state budget along with economic reforms ahead of the donor conferences.
After it was endorsed by the Cabinet earlier this month, the parliamentary Finance and Budget Committee has been meeting daily to wrap up the draft budget before sending it Parliament’s general assembly for final ratification.
“Speaker Nabih Berri will call for Parliament sessions to debate and ratify the draft budget once the committee has finalized its discussion and approval of allocations for all ministries,” Youth and Sports Minister Mohammad Fneish said.
The cooperation reportedly includes the joint training of troops