BEIRUT: In the wake of criticism of Lebanon’s troubled disassociation policy, British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher said Friday he believed those at the top levels of government were committed to a neutral foreign policy stance on Syria.
“I’m reasonably convinced by the assurances I get that everyone in the key positions of government in the key state institutions – from the president, prime minister, speaker, the army, the police – they all recognize that basically there’s no alternative to the policy of disassociation, and they have to keep the state out of it,” Fletcher said in an interview with The Daily Star.
However, he added, “I think different ministers have interpreted that in different ways.”
Due to its particular geographical, historical and sectarian situation, Lebanon has been alone among Arab League members in adopting a disassociation policy on the civil war next door, which this week entered its third year.
At an Arab League conference in Cairo last week, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour suggested Damascus be reinstated as a league member. He was heavily criticized by the opposition March 14 coalition, who labeled him “the charge d’affaires of the Syrian regime in Lebanon.”
The conflict has so far claimed at least 70,000 lives, and created more than 1.1 million refugees and around 4 million internally displaced.
On unofficial assistance to both sides in Syria, Fletcher admitted that while Britain was more critical of support to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, “there is also clearly some fluid movement across the northern border as well in support of the Syrian opposition.”
While Hezbollah and its ally Iran have been, according to some reports, fighting alongside Syrian government troops – something the Lebanese party denies – some members of the March 14 opposition have been vocal about arming the rebels.
It is becoming more of a challenge to contain the movement of arms across Lebanon’s long, porous border with Syria, Fletcher said, warning of where this might lead.
“Basically in that way lies just all sorts of peril, because it will be very, very difficult to start to unwind that if we go in that direction.”
In terms of British assistance to the rebels, which has thus far been nonlethal, Fletcher said it was necessary not to exacerbate an already gruesome conflict, but stressed that the battle between government troops and rebels was acutely imbalanced.
“You desperately don’t want to do anything that makes the situation worse, either in this phase, or the next phase. And as you can imagine we have quite lively discussions with some folk here about what we should be doing or what we shouldn’t be doing,” he said.
Both France and Britain are pushing to have an EU arms embargo on Syria lifted, allowing them to assist the rebels militarily.
“I think there’s this frustration from the very top in our system ... this sense that one side in Syria is being heavily armed ... and that’s the side that is carrying out the vast majority of the atrocities, and doing the vast majority of the torturing. So you have a very, very uneven battle.”
In an ideal world, he said, a political process would address the causes of the ongoing war, but “otherwise, how long can this be left to go on?’
“You are seeing huge frustration there, two years on. Can we simply leave Syria to settle this internally – 200 people dying each day, refugee numbers going through the roof here, in Jordan and in Turkey – can we simply step back and leave that?”
On sporadic outbreaks of violence in Lebanon over the last two years, and largely enflamed by differing stances on the Syrian conflict, Fletcher said he was generally encouraged by moderate political voices that had worked to contain such violence.
Asked about attempts to bring Free Syrian Army-Hezbollah clashes from Syria into Lebanon, Fletcher said he witnessed a “center ground, which seems to be able to, until now, absorb those and get them to pull back from this position.”
The importance of these political actors in maintaining stability, albeit a fragile one, is a key reason why Lebanese parliamentary elections must be held on time, Fletcher said.
Scheduled for June, political divisions over a new electoral law appear as wide as ever, and it seems likely elections will be held late, or that the mandate of Parliament will be extended.
“I’m not pretending for a second that elections will suddenly fix every problem that Lebanon has, but my worry would be that if we don’t manage to get an agreement on elections then it sends this message out that basically Lebanon is unable to continue in the usual way,” Fletcher said.
While a minor deviation from the June 9 poll date would be understandable, “it’s quite worrying when you hear some people talk about a two-year” delay, he added. “That to me doesn’t sound technical, that sounds slightly more categorical.”
On the issue of Syrian refugees, Fletcher said that there were certainly far more in Lebanon than the some 350,000 registered with the U.N.
This week President Michel Sleiman said that there are actually around 1 million displaced people in Lebanon, a figure presumed to include workers who were living here before the conflict arose in March 2011, but who can now no longer return.
Comparing the situation here to around 15 million refugees arriving in Britain, the envoy said it was clearly “unsustainable” that Lebanon be asked to host this number of refugees in the long term.
He also said he was worried about an emerging rhetoric, even among some politicians, seeking to apportion blame for everyday problems on Syrian refugees.
“You see some politicians starting to say, ‘The reason you don’t have power is because of the refugees,’ or ‘The reason your schools are on strike is because of the refugees.’ It’s not true, but it nevertheless demonstrates that risk of tension between host communities and refugees,” he said.
Many Syrian refugees have been staying within the homes of Lebanese families, sometimes friends and relatives but often complete strangers.
“It is amazing what people have done so far, and absorbed, with very limited complaint. But we can’t take that for granted, so we have to do much more to make sure that [the Lebanese too] are getting access to schools, hospitals ... that refugees are getting ...[so] that it’s not seen as a bias.”
And while there was a risk of an animosity building up between host communities and refugee populations, “I think it’s often overstated, by those watching from Beirut,” he said. “People are taking in Syrians from all communities in Syria, not just one community.
Speaking of villages in the south of Lebanon, Fletcher added, “I think if you go out there you see that it’s actually more complex and more mixed and ... people are showing amazing compassion.”