NEW YORK — In an interview with Al-Monitor, Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil focused on the challenges of providing shelter and support for more than 2 million refugees, who now make up almost 50% of Lebanon’s population, and called on the international community to do more. He noted that “Lebanon cannot be the only one receiving refugees. We can give humanitarian assistance to people in need, but not be a political recipient for the problems of Syria.”
In response to a question about Lebanon’s presidential vacancy and its impact on the management of the crisis in Syria, Bassil said, “With a good, strong president, you can have the real decision to fight terrorism and to put Lebanon at the heart of the battle.” He added, “All the problems coming from Syria can be stopped at the Lebanese border if the country is being ruled and directed by a strong president.”
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: When we last spoke in March, following your address to the UN Security Council on the dire situation of minorities in the Middle East, you said that a "real political will" for the protection of minorities has not been demonstrated. Has any progress been made since March?
Bassil: Not really. There is more awareness, but not much has been done. Actually, this is why you see that there is a failure and somehow people are admitting they failed. They are looking for different alternatives, whether militarily through the Russian intervention or politically through accepting that [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad has to be somehow in a transitional period. Mosul was not regained. Mass influxes of immigrants have not stopped. Actually, they increased, and the destruction of the culture and of the heritage has not stopped. More conferences have happened, more acceptances of the reality, and the need for minorities to stay in the region has been declared more often, but nothing really has happened.
Al-Monitor: What has been the response of the United Nations and the international community to your appeal? You mentioned that more people are paying attention, but they haven’t done anything. Has anyone made attempts to do anything?
Bassil: Not really, frankly. Maybe the Russian intervention, among other things, would have the aim of doing something. Actually, by stopping Daesh [an acronym in Arabic for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] from expanding, we are undoubtedly doing something to preserve the minorities. I think we will see more of a stand, more actions of Western countries, of the US, Europe, Russia, out of the need to stop the spread of terrorism. Yes, I believe we will see more, but actually not enough, not at the speed that is needed.
Al-Monitor: Do you fear a permanent erosion of the Christian presence in Syria as a result of the war?
Bassil: Actually, it’s happening, the erosion, and we’ve lost more than an erosion in large chunks. In Iraq, it happened over 20 years, and we saw that 90% of the Christians have left Iraq. In Syria, we don’t have actual numbers because of the chaos. We cannot tell. We know that there has been a lot of internal and external immigration and displacement. Can we talk of figures and percentages? No. But definitely churches have been destroyed and people have left already. Somehow it’s sad to see that some European countries are expressing interest to receive minorities, thinking that they can be of added value to European societies whether through labor force or with their culture that they have and that they have something for European society. And you see the rush to receive some of them, but this is very negative for the region by emptying it of its minorities, and it is negative to lose this part of the population.
Al-Monitor: Lebanon, with a population of less than 5 million, is now sheltering nearly 1.2 million displaced. How has Lebanon been dealing with this issue, and what assistance does Lebanon seek from the international community?
Bassil: Actually, the figures are even higher. The number can be as high as 1.5 million on top of a half-million Palestinian refugees. So all in all, we are talking about 2 million refugees. That’s almost 45-50% of the population. How can we deal with it? We cannot deal with it. It is in the nature of the hospitality of the Lebanese that allows us to somehow adapt to the situation. But are we handling it? Not at all. We are suffering. We are losing a lot of our security. In economic terms, we are spending more than $10 billion on the refugee crisis. Our social services cannot handle this type of crisis in sectors like electricity, water and sanitation. We are suffering a lot, and the promises of the international community have not been met. We have received less than $100 million in the last four years. The international community has not lived up to its promises, and they would not be able to handle such a crisis in their own home countries. The only way to solve this crisis is by keeping the Syrians in their country, such as what Europe is doing. Lebanon has taken its share and much, much more. We cannot take anymore. That is why they are seeking refuge in other countries.
Al-Monitor: Lebanon has now been without a president for more than 16 months. What is causing the impasse when it comes to electing a new president in your view?
Bassil: It’s the same crisis of Daesh. It is not an exaggeration by saying this. You can see it in different means, such as in Lebanese politics where the diversity has been eliminated and it is not accepted to have the real representative of the Christians in a political position. This is similar to what Daesh is doing in the region by eliminating the nonuniform elements. In Lebanon, we should have the diversity of all communities sharing the power through a real partnership, real power sharing. It’s not happening now where the elements of the minorities are being gradually eliminated by not allowing them to ascend to power. There is a refusal to allow the real representatives of the minorities to gain power, comparable to an ideology of political extremism.
Al-Monitor: Has the presidential vacuum hindered the country’s ability to deal with the impact of the Syria crisis?
Bassil: Definitely it affects us. With a good, strong president, you can have the real decision to fight terrorism and to put Lebanon at the heart of the battle. This did not happen in the last few years when we had a president. But eventually, terrorism was able to infiltrate our country, in Arsal, for example, in Tripoli, in Sidon, and we had an occupation of some Lebanese lands by Daesh. But with a strong president, we can remove them from the country because we can force the situation where we will not be a place to hide terrorists, and Lebanon cannot be the only one receiving refugees. We can give humanitarian assistance to people in need, but not be a political recipient for the problems of Syria that spill over. All the problems coming from Syria can be stopped on the Lebanese border if the country is being ruled and directed by a strong president. There is no president who has the power and capability to make the hard decisions to fight terrorism and to preserve Lebanon as a diverse country and to really enforce the power sharing in our system. This is what’s bad about it.
Al-Monitor: In a Sept. 18 interview with the Washington Post, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said that of the 12 Lebanese presidents since independence, “11 have either been suggested or produced by external powers.” Do you think Lebanon’s next president will also be suggested by an external power?
Bassil: It is how Lebanon has reached this deteriorated situation, when we accepted the influence of foreign powers to nominate our president. Now it’s time for us, especially in these hard days, to have a president with real representation. The only criteria that should dictate electing a president is the choice and endorsement of the Lebanese people. Because this happened before and brought us more difficulties, it should not happen anymore.
Al-Monitor: Lebanon has received considerable media coverage in the past few weeks regarding the so-called "You Stink" protests. Demonstrators initially came out to protest the trash crisis, but demands then shifted to addressing perceived corruption in the government, with organizers calling for the resignation of Minister of Environment Mohammad Machnouk. What is your position on these protests, and where do you see the street movement heading?
Bassil: This is something that is needed, to have the reaction of the people against what is bad. Part of our political work is to invite people to take part in movements and to motivate them to be of high spirits, of high morale and to take action. The problem is that the call for reform was generalized as all politicians are being accused of corruption. So this I believe made them lose a lot of credibility, and this made them lose a lot of their support. We endorse them, we encourage them to be active and vocal of refusing the corruption and encouraging the reforms, but they cannot accuse everybody of being corrupt. I believe we need this movement supported by the real movements of reform, by the real parties and personalities to do the reform. All the reforms should be a joint effort to reach reform.