BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman warned Tuesday that Lebanon faced a crisis of existence as a result of regional conflicts around it and urged the international community to help his cash-strapped country cope with the rising flow of refugees from war-ravaged Syria.
Sleiman was addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama pledged during a meeting with him $8.7 million in additional aid to the Lebanese Army to help maintain Lebanon’s stability.
During a meeting with Sleiman on the sidelines of the Assembly, Obama said the financial aid was aimed at helping the military protect its borders against terrorist threats and illicit goods.
Lebanese authorities have repeatedly said the Army was incapable of fully protecting its 550-kilometer-long border with Syria, which complains that the joint frontier has become a smuggling route for gunmen and weapons. U.S. officials have voiced similar concerns.
“ Lebanon is facing a crisis of existence as a result of regional conflicts around it. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees are flooding into the country,” Sleiman said in his speech.
Declaring that the 30-month-old conflict in Syria presented Lebanon with “several challenges,” he said: “We call on the international community to support Lebanon with regard to the issue of Syrian refugees.”
“ Lebanon needs the support of friendly and brotherly countries to face the repercussions of regional conflicts that are threatening its security and stability and are negatively affecting its economic and social conditions,” Sleiman added.
“The most pressing burden resulted from the increasing number of Syrian refugees. Their number now accounts for a quarter of Lebanon’s population,” he said.
Sleiman called for the convening of an international conference on Syrian refugees during which the burdens of hosting the refugees could be shared among donor countries.
For his part, Obama praised Lebanon for its generosity in welcoming refugees fleeing the war in Syria and pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid to help offset the costs of the crisis.
“The United States strongly supports the role of the Lebanese Armed Forces in maintaining Lebanon’s stability, and today we’re announcing an additional $8.7 million that would provide needed equipment in support of the Lebanese armed forces in internal stability and border security missions,” Obama said, according to the National News Agency.
Obama urged all parties in Lebanon to refrain from engaging in the 30-month-old Syrian conflict, saying the U.S. strongly rejected Hezbollah’s heavy involvement in that conflict. He added that Lebanon has full U.S. support as it seeks to preserve its independence amid the regional chaos.
Commenting on the U.S.-Russia deal that would see Damascus handing over its stockpile of chemical arms, Obama said: “We are pleased that there may be progress in getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons ... which would be good for Lebanon.”
The meeting with Sleiman came after Obama announced $339 million in additional humanitarian aid in response to Syria’s crisis, including $74 million for Lebanon to support the refugees.
Obama called on the international community to do more to help. He praised Lebanon for having been “tremendously generous” in welcoming refugees fleeing the war in Syria.
Sleiman said Lebanon has had a difficult time dealing with the influx of refugees. Lebanon has a population of about 4.5 million and now officially hosts more than 700,000 registered refugees. He has estimated at least 1 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, with thousands more crossing over each week.
During the meeting with Obama, Sleiman demanded “support from the international community and the United States to ensure the success of the meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon and help Lebanon face the burden of the influx of Syrian refugees,” NNA reported.
On the eve of the meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon, Sleiman said: “We are hoping for the important U.S. participation in this meeting to secure the political and economic support for Lebanon, support for the Army and necessary support to accommodate the Syrian refugees.”
Addressing the General Assembly, Sleiman called for a political solution to the crisis in Syria that would preserve the country’s unity. He said he hoped the U.S.-Russian understanding to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles would be “a gateway to a political solution” in the strife-torn country.
He also called for reforming the world’s political and financial systems in order to guarantee the participation of minorities in running public affairs and preserving the free presence of these minorities in the world.
Sleiman also met separately with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and the head of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. He is expected to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
He will attend Wednesday a conference of the International Support Group for Lebanon designed to help Lebanon cope with the rising number of Syrian refugees.
The meeting will address three main concerns: Support for refugees and host communities, helping Lebanon’s economy and financial system and assisting the Lebanese security forces.
Lebanon has repeatedly called for international assistance to address the refugee crisis, complaining that pledged assistance from the international community has failed to materialize.
Lebanese officials say the refugee influx has strained the country’s health care and education systems, as well as Lebanon’s economy.
Lebanon is officially committed to a policy of disassociation from the Syrian crisis, despite the involvement of various Lebanese factions in the civil war there.
From New York, Sleiman will fly to Saudi Arabia on an official visit to discuss with Saudi officials the political crisis in Lebanon and the repercussions of the war in Syria on the country’s security and stability.