BEIRUT: The U.S. ramped up its diplomatic efforts in Lebanon Friday ahead of a potential military strike in Syria, withdrawing embassy staff while reassuring the Lebanese government that it would protect it from fallout across the border.
The measures come amid fears that U.S. interests may be under threat if planned strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad go ahead.
The U.S. State Department asked its nonemergency staff and their family members to leave Lebanon, citing security concerns.
“The Department of State drew down nonemergency personnel and family members from Embassy Beirut due to threats to U.S. Mission facilities and personnel,” a statement on the Embassy website said.
It also urged U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns and for those in the country to prepare to depart at short notice.
“ U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks,” the State Department said.
In a separate statement, the State Department said it approved the drawdown of nonemergency personnel and family members who wish to leave Turkey’s Adana.
“Given the current tensions in the region, as well as potential threats to U.S. Government facilities and personnel, we are taking these steps out of an abundance of caution to protect our employees and their families, and local employees and visitors to our facilities,” the State Department said.
President Barack Obama is seeking the authorization of Congress to launch a military strike against Syria in a bid to weaken Assad’s capabilities and punish the regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Washington has accused Damascus of using poisonous gas against citizens on several occasions this year including the Aug. 21 attack in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Syria has denied the allegations.
But Obama is facing pressure from the international community to refrain from any such attack as Russia and Iran warn of a regional crisis in the event of a military strike against their Arab ally.
In the July-August 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, the U.S. Embassy evacuated its citizens by sea.
According to a Wall Street Journal report Friday, unidentified U.S. officials said they were on alert for Iran’s fleet of small, fast boats in the Gulf amid fears Hezbollah could attack the American Embassy in Beirut in retaliation for any U.S. strike against Assad’s regime.
The report added that the State Department had begun preparing for potential reprisals against American missions in the Middle East and North Africa a week ago.
In addition to the American measures, Italy dispatched a warship to the eastern Mediterranean that could evacuate Italian troops from Lebanon if the conflict in Syria spills over the border, the country’s navy said Friday.
The Andrea Doria, a 153-meter destroyer, “will monitor the situation,” a navy spokesman told AFP.
Italy has 1,100 soldiers deployed in Lebanon, where it heads up the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon on the southern border with Israel.
UNIFIL is comprised of a total of around 10,000 soldiers.
Quoted in Italian media Friday, UNIFIL chief Paolo Serra said there was “tense calm” in southern Lebanon.
The Italian navy said the warship was already in the area, which has seen a major concentration of international naval assets in the last few days.
The navy said it had also sent a frigate, the Maestrale, to patrol off the coast of Lebanon.
In a fresh challenge to official U.S. rhetoric, Hezbollah MP Hussein Musawi said the U.S. was gearing for significant military action against Syria and warned that such an attack would result in a “global disaster” with severe consequences.
“They are preparing for the war against Syria under the pretext of a humane strike but the president is seeking authorization from Congress, which means he is heading toward a bigger war than a punitive operation,” he said, according to a Hezbollah statement.
“The region faces an international disaster, the repercussions of which no one will be spared from if the lunatics in the U.S. administration remain on their [path] of transgression and tyranny,” Musawi said. He also called on the “free people of the world” to fend off a possible strike on Syria.
But the Obama administration’s new envoy to Beirut reassured Lebanon that the U.S. would work on insulating it from any military strike.
“We are also very focused on insulating Lebanon from any aftermath of any response to Syria’s chemical attack and preserving Lebanon’s policy of disassociation,” U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale told reporters at the Grand Serail, in his first comments since taking his post.
Hale, who spoke following a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, said his talks with officials centered on the challenges facing Lebanon as a result of the crisis in Syria.
Earlier Friday, Hale presented his credentials to President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace.
Hale said Assad needed to be held accountable for the “outrageous” use of chemical weapons. Describing Beirut’s policy of disassociation as a right for Lebanon, he said: “We believe the interests of the Lebanese people would be best served if all Lebanese adhere to the policy of disassociation.”
Hale, who arrived in Lebanon last week to replace former Ambassador Maura Connelly, also said Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s crisis represented further challenges for the country.
“ Hezbollah continues to blatantly violate the disassociation policy through direct participation in the Syrian conflict, exacerbating the challenges facing Lebanon today,” he said.
During the talks, Mikati said dialogue was the “only way to resolve the crisis in Syria,” calling on distancing Lebanon from regional repercussions.”
According to a statement from his office, Mikati said “using force and violence cannot resolve the issues at hand.”