TRIPOLI: In this file photo, Lebanese army reinforcements arrive in the northern port city of Tripoli during clashes with protesters as anger over a spiraling economic crisis re-energized a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown. - AFP

BEIRUT: Lebanon is unable to pay its soldiers enough, the army warned yesterday ahead of a UN-backed conference during which donors will seek to shore up one of the bankrupt country's key institutions. Unlike previous conferences designed to provide training, weapons or equipment for Lebanon's armed forces, the virtual meeting hosted by France today aims to offer the kind of humanitarian assistance usually reserved for countries grappling with conflict or natural disaster. "We are in need of food parcels, healthcare assistance and support with soldiers' pay," a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"The devaluation of the Lebanese pound is affecting soldiers and they are in need of support. Their salaries are not enough anymore." Lebanon's economic crisis, which the World Bank has labeled as one of the world's worst since the 1850s, has eaten away at soldiers' pay and slashed the military's budget for maintenance and equipment, further threatening the country's stability. Already mid last year, the army said it had scrapped meat from the meals offered to on-duty soldiers, due to rising food prices.

"We are doing the impossible to ease the suffering and the economic woes of our soldiers," army chief Joseph Aoun said in a speech on Tuesday. "We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid, and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet."

Milk, flour, medicine

Around 20 countries, including the United States, EU member states, Gulf countries, Russia and China have been invited to take part in the conference alongside UN representatives. It follows a visit by Aoun last month to Paris, where he warned that the army could face even darker days without emergency support. "The Lebanese army is going through a major crisis, which could get worse due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in Lebanon, which may worsen when subsidies are lifted," he said.

He was referring to a government plan to scrap subsidies on essential goods such as fuel, food and flour to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves. A source close to French Defense Minister Florence Parly said yesterday that the crisis was alarming as the Lebanese military is the "key institution" maintaining security in the country. The army has highlighted "very specific needs" for milk, flour, medicine, fuel and spare parts for maintenance, the source said, in requests amounting to "several tens of thousands of euros". The aid was needed "as soon as possible", the source said, stressing "the urgency of the situation".

'Singular battle'

Whether or not the aid would be in cash or in kind was to be discussed today. France is expected to announce deliveries of medical equipment to combat the coronavirus and spare parts for armored vehicles and helicopters. The United States pledged to make a contribution during a meeting Tuesday in Brussels between Parly and her American counterpart Lloyd Austin. The Lebanese army has been relying heavily on food donations from allied states since last summer's monster port explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people and damaged swathes of the capital. France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are among the army's main food donors.

Iraq and Spain have offered medical assistance. The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military. It has bumped up funding for the army by $15 million for this year to $120 million. Aram Nerguizian of the Carnegie Middle East Center said the "Paris conference is meant to prompt partner nations to think creatively about how to help the LAF (army) through 2021."

In a report published yesterday, he said the assistance would "allow the command of the armed forces to focus on its missions-border security, counterterrorism, internal stability-as opposed to fighting a singular battle to maintain the LAF's stability, with no real Lebanese government assistance." - AFP