UK Lebanon envoy: World must relieve Syrian refugee crisis

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In an interview with As-Safir, British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher talks about the coming presidential elections and the spillover of the Syrian crisis into Lebanon.

British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher raised the alarm during an interview with As-Safir. He said, “The risk of the naturalization of Syrian refugees [in Lebanon] is existent and it is not an illusion,” calling on the Lebanese government “to think thoroughly at this symbolic moment about the necessary plans to absorb the risks posed by the Syrian crisis and its repercussions.”

Fletcher talked about another risk that lies within the increased possibility of the spillover of the Syrian crisis into Lebanon. This is why countries, in particular Britain, are striving to reinforce the Lebanese army and security forces through various means in order to protect the stability of the country. On this level, there are two upcoming milestones: the Washington Conference under the sponsorship of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) scheduled for this April, and the Rome Conference — whose technical session will take place on April 10 — which will be held at the level of foreign ministers during June.

When it comes to presidential elections, Britain does not and will not have any specific candidates, as affirmed by Fletcher. The latter said, “There is a Lebanese habit of relying on foreign powers, and a foreign habit of intervening in Lebanese affairs. I hope the majority of countries will be convinced of the uselessness of interfering in [the presidential elections]. In my opinion, the main voter should be the Lebanese people, because it would be shameful for Lebanon to [allow] its president to be elected in a dark room at the hands of cigar smokers.”

Fletcher is concerned about the current situation. “The formation of the government has given a genuine political enthusiasm and a temporary chance, and has opened a small window toward progress and the achievement of quick gains,” he said. “The question the new ministers are asked today: what are the quick gains that can be achieved within a period of two months only?”

The reason behind Fletcher’s concern is “the security situation — namely in Tripoli — the risk of the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, as well as the humanitarian situation, as the official number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon will reach 1 million in about a week. This will constitute a symbolic moment to think thoroughly about what should be done. I believe the increase in the number of refugees constitutes pressure on the host Lebanese communities. There is not one country in the world dealing with a problem that significant.”

As-Safir asked Fletcher about the reason he is raising the alarm, while the international community has encouraged Lebanon to host the refugees. “I believe this is [about] managing a humanitarian issue,” Fletcher said. “In my opinion, the countries that agree to pay this humanitarian price are few. There are various Western countries that are trying to be as generous as Lebanon, but this burden should not be bore by the Lebanese alone. Since we encouraged Lebanon to host the displaced Syrians, we have to cater for its needs, especially since it is one of the biggest displacement crises in history. Britain has offered to this day $1 billion to meet the needs of displaced Syrians in the region. Lebanon is considered one of the main beneficiaries in terms of its hosting communities, schools and various sectors. These amounts are gradually increasing and we are looking forward to the meeting of the World Bank and the IMF in Washington this April to be granted additional funding for education,” he added.

Supporting the army: a British priority

Talking about the issue of refugees shifting from being a humanitarian crisis to having security dimensions, and about the concerns of refugee settlement in Lebanon, Fletcher said, “I totally agree on this. This is why we support the government channeling its focus to the security situation and we affirm our cooperation with the Lebanese army and internal security forces. This cooperation increased tenfold since I first came to Lebanon two and a half years ago. Britain contributed, for example, to the renovation of the Ras Beirut police station, and offered support to the police code of conduct. Last Tuesday, I visited the northern region to examine the training activities provided by prominent British officers to the Lebanese security forces, including members tasked with preserving security in Tripoli and Arsal. We also built a number of watchtowers along the northeastern borders. The goal of my visit to the north was to supervise the equipment and donations, and to learn of the needs of the Lebanese army after army chief Gen. Jean Kahwaji asked me to be acquainted on the field with the needs of the army, including armors, means of communication, and other equipment that we are trying to provide.”

In response to a question about whether this equipment indeed protects the borders and halts the infiltration of militants, Fletcher answered, “I believe that the immediate result is the improvement of the army’s ability to inspect cars at checkpoints. The Lebanese army is leading these missions, especially in the north. This issue has a political aspect too: showing that Britain stands by Lebanon to fend off war. It also conveys another message to the Syrian regime and those fighting in Syria that the war will not spill over to Lebanon and that we will provide the Lebanese state with all the support it needs to fend off any war on its territories.”

Talking about the Rome Conference that is scheduled for April, Fletcher said, “We will participate in the conference as part of the international support group through our foreign minister. Before the Rome conference, the Washington meeting will be held. Afterwards, we will focus all our efforts on increasing support to the Lebanese army and pushing donor countries to do so as well, and we will be informed about the plan and the needs of the army. Britain will announce during the conference an increase in its support to the army, especially in terms of the reinforcement of [the army’s] capabilities on the northeastern borders.”

Fletcher believes that “the role of the army is currently decisive and fateful. It is important that all parties acknowledge this. There is a consensus over the army and its role, and it is important [for this consensus] to remain, notably consensus over the fact that the army is targeted. When a bombing took place at an army checkpoint a month ago, we rushed to offer protection equipment, including body armor. I believe that all of the requirements set by the Lebanese army in its five-year plan ought to be met. For us, training the army is of paramount importance.”

The specter of Syrian nationalization

Fletcher completely agrees with the concern that is starting to spread among the displaced over their nationalization in Lebanon. “We will have concerns as long as the conflict is raging in Syria and as long as this conflict is preventing the return of the displaced people to their homes due to the lack of security. But we ought to remain objective as far the nationalization of displaced people on the long run is concerned. These people do not want to stay in Lebanon, and they wish to return to their country as soon as possible.”

Asked about the similarity between the Syrian displaced and the Palestinian refugees who wish to return but are still in Lebanon, Fletcher said, “This is a correct comparison. I think it is very necessary to find a political solution to end the war in Syria. Otherwise, things will get very disquieting.”

Asked whether that means that there are fears of Syrian nationalization, the British ambassador answered, “Yes, this is true.”

A neutral position for Lebanon is undesirable in the Ukraine crisis

Asked about the impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the West’s interest in the situation in Syria, Fletcher said, “I agree that the Ukrainian crisis has enjoyed great international focus in the last couple of weeks, and this is understandable given that it is also a major international crisis. However, I do not think that this crisis will distract our attention from what is happening in Syria. I think it is too early to predict the repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis, and there is a great need for the major powers — such as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran — to cooperate in order to reach convergent views on Syria and end the war. The differences over Ukraine, however, will obviously complicate things. I personally think that given the current interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the latter is more interested in what is happening in Crimea than in President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power.”

Asked about the impact that this would have on Lebanon, he said, “Lebanon will witness further spillover of instability. This is why we attach importance to the role played by the Lebanese army and the internal security forces to control the situation, as well as to helping the poor displaced and taking political action to hold the presidential elections on time. I think that we should establish a charter with the international community about what we want. After talking to several ambassadors, I came to realize that no one wants to meddle in the presidential elections, which should be solely controlled by the Lebanese, and I hope that there will be a broader international consensus about this issue, especially on the part of regional countries.”

Concerning Lebanon’s neutral position on the Ukrainian crisis, he said, “I personally do not like it. I fully support the self-distancing policy adopted by Lebanon toward the Syrian crisis, but as far as the Ukrainian crisis is concerned, Lebanon has always supported the UN resolutions and the principles of international law, and I hope that it will not distance itself from the Ukrainian crisis. We talked to the Lebanese government to explain our approach on the subject, but the decision rests with the Lebanese ministers. I think that Lebanon does not have to be neutral toward the Ukrainian crisis.”

I met with the Iranian ambassador in “a neutral place”

Asked about the British convergence with Iran and its role in the rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, Fletcher said, “I hope that there will be consensus and convergence between the two countries on the regional issues. We have had our differences with Iran in the past years. I held a meeting for the first time last month with the Iranian ambassador in Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, and we met in a neutral place in Lebanon.”

Asked about the meaning of “a neutral place” in Lebanon, Fletcher said, “Let’s say it was a safe place for our security. We wanted to resume talks about the relationship between us and Iran, but I think that both of us had interest in focusing on what is happening in Lebanon and trying to understand the differences in views about the stability of Lebanon in the next stage. We were keen to continue the dialogue, and I think that Iran has a major interest in Lebanon and a close relationship with Hezbollah, which is a key part of the political process.”

“There are several things we do not agree upon with the Iranians, and it is no secret that we would have preferred Iran not to send Lebanese youth to die for the sake of Assad, but I believe in diplomatic action and continued dialogue.”

Our relationship with Hezbollah depends on its behavior in Syria

Asked whether this dialogue reflected on Britain’s relationship with Hezbollah and the possibility of removing the latter’s military wing from the British terrorism list, Fletcher answered, “Obviously, it is only the military wing that is included on the list, and we are dealing with a government that includes members of Hezbollah. I personally don't have any contact with Hezbollah.”

Fletcher said, “Everything depends on Hezbollah and on its behavior in the next stage, and we do not believe that their approach to the Syrian issue is helping Lebanon. We do not want any breach by Hezbollah or Israel of UN Resolution 1701, especially after the many recent incidents that took place. We are in constant contact with the UNIFIL and Derek Plumbly. The regular assessment of the Resolution 1701 took place this week in New York and the incidents taking place in the south are not a good omen. Both Israel and Hezbollah have to think carefully not to cause any tension in this area, because it is not the right place for it.”

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Found in: syrian refugees, syria, lebanon, internationalization of the syrian conflict, hezbollah, government, economy
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