Aoun calls for national defence strategy dialogue

By Junaid Salman in Beirut


The Lebanese army waged battles in 2017 to oust the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' from the north-eastern border areas. [Junaid Salman/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese president Michel Aoun recently announced he will call for a national dialogue to complete the implementation of the Taif Accord.

In a televised speech delivered May 8th, Aoun said he plans to launch a national defence strategy that will guarantee "Lebanon's sovereignty and territorial integrity".

Discussion of a national defence strategy had stopped in 2014 with the end of the mandate of former president Michel Suleiman.

Suleiman held a dialogue with Lebanese political leaders that succeeded in 2012 in producing the Baabda Declaration, which called on Lebanon to retain its neutrality in regional conflicts.

Hizbullah's military involvement in the Syrian conflict has upended the provisions of that declaration, however, with the fate of any defence strategy for Lebanon closely linked to its weapons and role inside and outside Lebanon.

Developing a defence strategy

"The defence strategy must be developed by the Council of Ministers and then referred to the Supreme Defence Council," which is headed by Aoun, said military expert Brig. Gen. Khalil Helou, who is retired from the Lebanese forces.

"The regional situation is no longer what it was, as there is an attempt to form an alliance against the role of Iran in the region," he told Al-Mashareq. "The question is, where will Lebanon be?"

Contrary to rumours about a possible "soft withdrawal" by Hizbullah from Syria in light of escalating international and regional pressures, "the decision on Hizbullah’s withdrawal from Syria is Tehran’s to make", Helou said.

After the Lebanese army's recent success in battling extremists, Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri vowed to develop a defence strategy, said security strategy specialist and retired military officer Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb.

Today, "after the legislative elections and political alignment behind a new government, the situation requires that the promised strategy be produced", he told Al-Mashareq.

Thanks to international assistance, the army and security agencies are now well prepared to protect Lebanon’s borders in the east and north, he said, and continue to co-operate with the UN Interim Force (UNIFIL) in south Lebanon.

Discussion of Hizbullah withdrawal

There are new realities in the region that will impose themselves on the form of the defence strategy to be considered, said political writer George Shaheen.

"There are those who believe that the pressures being exerted on Iran and the sanctions imposed on senior figures in Hizbullah and its military, economic and financial entities have opened the door to discussion of Hizballah’s presence in Syria and possibility of its withdrawal," he told Al-Mashareq.

Hizbullah’s return is demanded by Lebanese who advocate the application of the principle of distancing Lebanon from regional conflicts, as called for by the government's disassociation policy, he said.

"The issue of Hizbullah's return from Syria has been discussed in higher official circles following the results produced by the recent parliamentary elections," Shaheen said.

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