Lebanon at the Crossroads
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Thank you very much Chairman Kaine. And thank you for inviting me to testify on the situation in Lebanon, and our policy towards that very important country and a very volatile region, as you saw directly. Your hearing comes at an important moment for Lebanon security and stability. Public discussion of Lebanon, as you say in the United States, is often focused primarily on the impact of the Syrian refugee flows into that country. The refugee crisis that you witnessed firsthand during your recent visit to Lebanon, represents an urgent imperative need. That said, Lebanon faces broader issues and the United States is helping Lebanon respond to these challenges.
Because Lebanon's future affects important U.S. interests in the region, which are very obvious just by the geographical nature of Lebanon's location and its neighborhood. The Syrian conflict threatens progress in Lebanon (coughing -- inaudible) national identity and to establish lasting stability and an effective political system. The February 15 formation of a government by Prime Minister Suleiman after 10 months of gridlock, is a welcome development for the Lebanese people, and an opportunity for the United States and Lebanon to work together to achieve shared goals.
The Lebanese people deserve a government that responds to their needs and protects their interests. As it works to gain a vote of confidence from Parliament and begins to exercise full powers, this government is in one sense, better than its predecessor. Nearly all political factions are represented in a careful balance. The March 14 faction is in the government. In order to obtain confidence, the cabinet as you say, must now agree on a ministerial policy statement. We have expressed support for this government. How we work with it, will depend on its policies and actions. The next political hurdle, as you know, is the end of President Suleiman's term in office on May 25.
Presidential elections should be conducted on time, freely and fairly and without foreign interference. We hope that the spirit that led to the government formation will also ensure that there is no presidential vacancy. I think you know already chairman -- Mr. Chairman, Lebanon's unique security problems as far as the border, Hezbollah's weapon stockpiles beyond government control, the need for all groups to be -- armed groups to be disarmed. And you know that it -- existing political and sectarian differences have been intensified by the war in Syria. Hezbollah entered that war contrary to the agreement of all Lebanese parties to dissociate Lebanon from foreign conflicts. Hezbollah, on behalf of its foreign supporters, is dragging the Lebanese people into a war in defense of the Assad regime.
Hezbollah's posture of acting inside the state when it is convenient, but stepping outside the state to use arms and violence when it wishes, is deeply threatening. And now, extremists fighting the Assad regime and Hezbollah backers have brought their fight inside Lebanon through a wave of reprehensible terrorist attacks that have killed and injured scores in Beirut and other cities. Amidst this, the Lebanese armed forces have acted to maintain internal security. Just three days ago, two Lebanese armed forces soldiers were killed in a terrorist suicide bombing. As you know, the LAF has had recent counterterrorism successes, capturing some high-profile terrorists, including a facilitator for an al-Qaeda affiliate -- for al-Qaeda affiliated groups responsible for several suicide bombings.
These incidents highlight the ongoing dangers from Hezbollah's support for the Assad regime and the flow of violent extremists, whether they be from the al-Nusra front version in Lebanon, the Islamic state of Iraq in the Levant and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which -- the last of which claimed responsibilities for the most recent bombings. The critical material and training we provide to the LAF and the internal security forces, builds their capacities to conduct operations against extremists, terrorists and criminal organizations. My colleague, General Plehn, will offer details on this. We are trying to increase our foreign military financing through the LAF in order to modernize it and build its capabilities, particularly to secure its borders -- and its border with Syria.
We need to maintain -- Mr. Chairman, we need to maintain our strong partnership we have built with the LAF. We -- and we appreciate Congress for its continued support for State and Defense programs that enhance Lebanon's security and economic development. Mr. Chairman you -- you saw that -- and you said that Lebanon hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country in the region, nearly 940,000 or more. There is no a single Lebanese community that has not been affected by the refugee crisis.
The United States is doing its part to help Lebanon deal with the burden, providing over $340 million in assistance. We urge other countries to meet the pledges that they have made. There's also a very damaging economic spillover through the tourism sector to investment and trade. The World Bank has estimated that the crisis will cut real GDP growth by 2.9 percent this year. And losses from the conflict would reach $7.5 billion.
The most promising economic sector would be possible substantial reserves of offshore natural gas and even oil deposits. We hope those will be explored and -- and contracted. And the State Department is engaging with both Lebanon and Israel to see about political -- potential solutions to the maritime -- their maritime boundary dispute.
Undersecretary -- Secretary General of the U.N. Ban Ki-Moon and president (inaudible) last September launched the International Support Group for Lebanon. We look to this group not to be a one-off in September, but to be an active vehicle by which the international community can provide the support to promote stability.
Secretary Kerry will attend the next gathering of this group, the international support group, in Paris next week. We're also -- the United States is also committed to ensuring an end to the era of impunity and assassination and political violence in Lebanon. That's why we strongly support the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which just began one month ago to trials -- to determine and bring to justice those responsible for assassinating former prime minister Rafik (ph) Kariri and dozens of others.
The Lebanese people, Mr. Chairman, have waited too long for accountability and justice. Unfortunately, as we all know, political violence still plagues Lebanon. Just in December, former finance minister and ambassador to the United States, Muhamed (ph) Chatta (ph), was assassinated.
Mr. Chairman, Lebanon's faced existential challenges since its independence. The Tayif (ph) Accord in 1989 helped end the Civil War. U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701 helped structure a return to stability. And, in 2012, babda (ph) declaration established a principle that all Lebanese parties and factions should abstain from regional conflicts.
It needs to be implemented. The babda (ph) declaration needs to be implemented by all parties. Fortunately, amidst all these problems, Lebanon also has friends, and the United States counts itself as a very important friends of Lebanon and will continue to be. We need to stand with the people of Lebanon now. It's in our national interest to promote a stable Lebanon, free of foreign interference, and able to defend its interest.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.