Lecture by: Sir Derek Plumbly
Venue: Arab–British Chamber of Commerce, 43 Upper Grosvenor Street, London W1K 2NJ.
Time: 5.30 p.m., followed by a drinks reception.
Sir Derek Plumbly is a former British Ambassador to Riyadh. After retiring from the Foreign Service he held international positions first in Sudan and most recently as UN Special Envoy in Lebanon.
In his talk, Sir Derek drew on his experience as a diplomat and international official in the Middle East including nine years in Saudi Arabia, three of them as British ambassador, and three years as the UN Secretary General’s Special Coordinator in Lebanon, against the backdrop of the war in Syria and turmoil elsewhere in the region.
In Pursuit of Stability – Transcript:
It is an honour to be asked to speak to the Society tonight. After three postings to the Kingdom over thirty years I am very conscious both of the durability and the importance of the Saudi British relationship. I was reminded the other day that we are approaching its 100th anniversary in the shape of the signature by Sir Percy Cox and King Abdul Aziz of the treaty of friendship at Darin in December 1915. That was a major step for both countries and will I hope be appropriately marked.
The Committee however encouraged me to address recent events this evening. The Arab world is currently passing through a period of extraordinary change and turbulence. Grim conflicts are playing out in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. It was suggested that I focus on my recent experience on the periphery of this, leading for the UN in Lebanon.
What I propose to do is to focus on the particular impact of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon and the response, in which Saudi Arabia and the UK have both played important roles.
First a bit of context…. Many Saudis of course have longstanding family, academic or business links to Lebanon. Equally many Lebanese have worked and in some cases made their fortunes in Saudi Arabia.
At different times in the past the Kingdom has played a key role in sustaining stability in Lebanon, notably 25 years ago when Prince Saud al Faisal and others brokered the Taif Agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war. I spoke a few months ago at seminar in Beirut on the anniversary of the Agreement. Many there regretted that Taif was implemented belatedly, and only partially. That is true. Nonetheless it is also true that the constitutional and confessional balance agreed in Taif is the one to which the Lebanese system still works, and the principles enshrined in the Agreement – coexistence, freedom of speech… – continue to underpin it.
Saudi Arabia is not of course the only external power to have played a role in Lebanon and some have done so in much more controversial ways. The Israeli occupation in the south of the country ended only in 2000. Syria withdrew its forces finally in 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the ‘Cedar Revolution’. Iran has continued to fund and arm Hizbullah; incidents between the latter and the Israeli army led to a further destructive six weeks war in 2006. Rapid reconstruction followed that. But Lebanon’s political life remained fraught with sectarian tension, with intermittent engagement by other regional powers and Western ones, especially France and the US.
Through these developments the UN played a central peacekeeping, political and humanitarian role and the Secretary General has maintained an office in Beirut with an Under Secretary General at its head as Special Coordinator, the post I took up in January 2012. UNSCOL has a threefold mandate: to give a political lead on issues related to the cessation of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel; to engage with Lebanon’s leaders and make available the Secretary General’s ‘good offices’; and to coordinate – albeit with a light touch – the work of the 24 or so UN bodies represented there. The last two mandates have acquired new depth as a result of the regional crisis and the war in Syria. The total UN presence in Lebanon now stands at some 12000 international personnel, including UNIFIL peacekeepers in the south, and over 3000 nationals.
The UN numbers have grown significantly with the refugee influx from Syria. In January 2012 there were a few thousand Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon. There are now 1.2 million, equivalent to 25–30% of the local population. Indeed Lebanon has more refugees proportionate to its population than any other country in the world. It is as if, over the past three years, we were to have seen an increase of 15 million in the number of asylum seekers in the UK.
And Lebanon’s burden is of course only a part of the picture. There are now more than 4 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR across the region as a whole plus 7.6 million internally displaced within Syria itself. Add to that the hundreds of thousands again now displaced in Iraq and the Levant is now victim to the worst refugee crisis the world has seen in a generation.
In Lebanon the refugees are spread in communities across the country. The Lebanese, reflecting their experience in the twentieth century, have resisted the establishment of camps. Shelter is rented. Fifty per cent or more of the refugees live in ersatz accommodation in tents in fields, garages, and unfinished buildings. Support for them through the UN is tailored to a dispersed population, with payments through ATM cards and vouchers for food etc to be spent in local shops.
In Lebanon half the Syrian refugees are children of school age. The Lebanese have been generous in their response, including in admitting refugee children to public schools. The UK has given a strong lead on this programme. Even so sufficient funds have been raised to cover only 100000 children this academic year. That means roughly 400000 are without schooling. The long term dangers inherent in ‘a lost generation’ of Syrian children without schooling are obvious.
Across all programmes – shelter, education, food, health etc– it is becoming increasingly difficult to find funds. The total sought by the UN and the government of Lebanon for 2015 is admittedly enormous – $2.1 billion collectively for the refugees; for the communities hosting them, many of which are in the poorest parts of the country and overwhelmed; and for affected government programmes and services. However the shortfall at midyear is alarming: so far only 18% of the target sought has been raised, bringing with it the threat of further cuts – as happened at the end of 2014 in respect of the allowance for food. At the point Saudi Arabia and others helped out, but increasingly the world’s attention is elsewhere.
There is deep Lebanese apprehension now about a refugee presence with no end in sight. The past few months have seen a clampdown on new admissions, and an increasing incidence of friction in some places. Fears about the long term security and demographic implications of so large a refugee presence are ubiquitous.
The Syrian conflict has of course had other, more immediate, security impacts in Lebanon. At different times over the past three years there has been Sunni/Alawite fighting in Tripoli and terrorist bombings there and in south Beirut and elsewhere. Political polarisation runs deep, with Lebanese Sunnis identifying with the Syrian opposition and Shia with the regime and Christian politicians divided. This polarisation has been exacerbated by the involvement of Lebanese in the fighting in Syria. The extremist messages of groups like ISIS and Al Nusra are all the more difficult to counter when Hizbullah are not just heavily armed in parts of Lebanon but up to their ears in fighting in Syria.
Nonetheless the Lebanese army and security forces have done a good job in staying on top of these challenges. They are lamentably ill equipped but they have faced up to successive threats with courage and good leadership, and calm has for the most part been maintained internally despite the ongoing risks.
The security forces face an even more acute threat now on the border with Syria. From the outset of the crisis there were intermittent cross border raids there by the Syrian army and air force. Now, for a year or more, elements including ISIS and Al Nusra have been camped in the empty, mountainous terrain between the two countries. They clashed with the Lebanese army in the border town of Arsal last year and took hostages from the security forces, and are currently engaged in fighting in areas close to it with the regime and Hizbullah – fighting which threatens to spill over into Lebanon itself.
Taken together these would be immense challenges for any country. Few would have thought that after four years of civil war in Syria a fragile stability could have been maintained in Lebanon of all places, given their shared history and the links between them. Nonetheless the system has so far held.
Why is this so? I think there are a number of factors at work, both domestic and external. Within Lebanon political leaders have shown restraint and stepped in to help sustain calm at different points. In the Sunni community the moderation and leadership of Saad Hariri – based in Saudi Arabia – and Future Movement colleagues have been crucial, and proved effective after the fighting in Arsal and again in Tripoli after incidents there. Very significant too has been the role of politicians with a track record of bringing groups together – the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri immediately come to mind.
More broadly however and most important perhaps, though unqualifiable, is the memory of Lebanon’s own civil war and the widespread concern at all levels and in all communities to avoid a repetition. All parties, including Hizbullah, know that in the present climate sectarian strife could be impossible to contain – and all have a great deal to lose.
- All of this has facilitated a degree of political accommodation without which Lebanon could not have stayed as safe as it has until now. This was reflected in my time in:
- The policy of ‘disassociation’ adopted by the Lebanese government at the outset of the crisis. That in turn was enshrined in the Baabda Declaration, which was adopted at President Suliman’s prompting in 2012; indeed Baabda went further, in asserting Lebanon’s ‘neutralisation’;
- The almost unanimous election by parliament of Tamam Salam as Prime Minister designate in March 2013 after the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Miqati;
- The eventual formation and empowerment of an inclusive ‘national interest’ government under Tamam Salam’s leadership early in 2014;
- Crucially, that government’s authorisation of security plans for different parts of the country including Tripoli where the barriers between the warring Sunni and Alawi districts were removed for the first time in years, and its repeated backing for firm action against extremists.
- The launch in late 2014 of dialogue between the Future Movement and Hizbullah and – subsequently – of a parallel one between their respective Christian allies.
This makes it sound like a linear progression. But in fact the road was and remains bumpy in the extreme. Hizbullah’s ever deeper involvement in Syria drove a coach and horses through the Baabda Declaration. The protracted delay in government formation following Tamam Salam’s appointment as prime minister left outgoing caretaker ministers in charge of departments but with minimal powers for eleven months. There has been an even longer delay in choosing a president to fill the vacuum left after President Suliman’s term ended in May 2014. The crisis around that has become yet more acute in recent weeks, with an impending vacancy too at the head of the army. If the international community has a single ask of Lebanon’s leaders at present it is that they again show the sense of urgency and flexibility they manifested in early 2014 and agree without further delay on a new president. With that caveat I would say that, in my experience over the past three years, the desire to sustain at least a fragile stability has in the end won through in ensuring that the most pressing challenges are met. I doubt however whether this would have been possible without there also being a measure of external consensus as to the importance of stability in Lebanon and what is needed to sustain it. In contrast to the deep divisions in the Security Council over Syria, the permanent members and the wider international community have throughout been united in their messages on Lebanon.
In 2013, as the security picture inside Lebanon darkened, in part at least as a result of Hizbullah’s fighting in Syria, the Council adopted a comprehensive statement supporting the Baabda Declaration, calling for urgent formation of the new government and stressing the need for strong coordinated international support for Lebanon to help it withstand the multiple challenges to its security and stability. In September 2013 the Secretary General convened a meeting at Foreign Minister level of an ‘International Support Group’ comprising the permanent members, the EU, the Arab League and key UN agencies. The aim was to sustain and build on the political support already manifested in the Council and encourage assistance on three fronts – for the Lebanese army on the basis of a ground breaking five year plan we had worked on with the army; for refugees; and for affected host communities and government institutions in the light of an impact assessment worked up with the government and the World Bank.
Follow up meetings were held in Paris in March 2014, hosted by President Hollande and attended also by Saudi Arabia among others; subsequently in Rome with still wider attendance focusing on support for the Lebanese army; and then in Berlin on support for refugees.
All this was backed up by activity and lobbying by representatives in Beirut. In the media talk of an ‘international umbrella’ for Lebanon took hold. I visited regional capitals including Cairo and Tehran, and on several occasions went to Saudi Arabia. I found in Riyadh – as you would expect – a deep understanding of the situation and a shared view that the only safe way for the Lebanese to proceed politically was by compromise and agreement across the spectrum of parties and interests.
The international and regional response in terms of material assistance was mixed. I have described the shortfall in money for refugees and affected government programmes. With regard to the latter the Multi Donor Trust Fund established after the First international support group meeting has so far attracted no more than $74m.
On the other hand funding and equipment announced for the Lebanese army now far exceeds the minimum of $1.6 billion envisaged in the five year plan, with delivery promised over a much shorter time frame. The Kingdom undertook to provide $3 billion for the acquisition of equipment for the army from France and a further $1 billion for equipment from a variety of sources for both the army and the police. The US has greatly expanded and accelerated its existing assistance programme, including light aircraft. And the UK has focused on strengthening the army’s border regiments in the north and east with training, communications, logistics, and observation towers – vital given that the most immediate and dangerous threat facing the army is from ISIS and Al Nusra on that border; securing the whole border as far south as Shebaa should be a top priority now.
For all this Lebanon remains deeply vulnerable. I have not talked of the situation along the Blue Line with Israel, where UNIFIL’s painstaking attention has helped to maintain a fragile calm since 2006. But it too kept us busy – the threat of miscalculation and mutually destructive conflict between Israel and Hizbullah has never gone away.
But the most immediate dangers and the heaviest burdens recently have been those emanating from the wider regional crisis. They will remain so for as long as war continues in Syria, and could yet engulf what is the best example of a tolerant, multi–confessional society surviving in the Middle East.
It is I believe imperative that our governments do all in their power to support states around the periphery of the conflict – particularly Lebanon which is very much in the front line and bears a totally disproportionate burden. We should recognise that the need for both political and material support, and thus the call on our resources, will remain for at least as long as the conflict in Syria continues, as of course will the direct threat to our own societies in the shape of illegal migration and radicalisation and terrorism.
All the more reason therefore to step up efforts to end the conflict, looking for ways to increase the pressure both on the regime and on ISIS but also stepping up the diplomacy – with partners, with Russia, with regional powers, and in support of the UN. The task is of course infinitely more difficult than that over the past three years in Lebanon where the local players were more or less receptive; on the other hand interests do increasingly seem to overlap.
Finally we in the West should recognise that the threats are yet more acute for our close friends across the region. We should acknowledge the leadership being shown by Saudi Arabia under King Salman in crafting a regional response. In this, the hundredth year of our partnership, our friends need to know that we are absolutely engaged and wish to work as closely as possible together in pursuit of stability across the region.