BEIRUT: The European Union is considering how best to help Lebanon weather the regional storm, the head of its delegation to the country said Monday, as the bloc’s foreign ministers lifted an oil embargo on Syria.
EU Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst said the move, intended to assist those taking on Syrian President Bashar Assad, “followed a whole series of debates on how we, as the EU, can really help the opposition better.”
The easing of sanctions means opposition-controlled areas can export crude oil, import equipment for oil exploration, and member states can invest in the oil industry.
Eichhorst said the 27 foreign ministers did not discuss lifting the arms embargo to Syria, a shift some – most vocally British Foreign Secretary William Hague – have been pushing for in order to strengthen rebels.
The arms sanctions will expire in late May, and Eichhorst said it will “definitely [be] on the agenda at the next foreign ministers’ council” given the desire by some member states for a change.
“It is not just how we can lift some sanctions, but it is really first, how can we, as the European Union, contribute to finding a political solution,” the diplomat told The Daily Star, expressing support for international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and a plan for a transitional government world powers agreed to in Geneva last summer.
Calling how best to assist the opposition a “key question,” Eichhorst stressed that the stories of those Syrians “who on a daily basis work together peacefully [and] ... protest peacefully” are sometimes lost in a narrative that has been focused on extremist rebel elements, which she did deem a concern.
In addition, Eichhorst said the EU had been speaking to the main opposition Syrian National Council for “weeks, if not months, on how we can best channel humanitarian assistance” to those who need it inside Syria.
And Lebanon, which hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country, is also in dire need of aid. The U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has more than 430,000 refugees in its records, and there are more than 40,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with Lebanon’s branch of UNRWA.
If the current rate of entry continues, Lebanon projects there will be 1.2 million refugees inside its borders by the end of the year. Eichhorst pointed out that many more Lebanese will also soon need help, saying that “those Lebanese who are hosting [refugees], they themselves are families in need.” The EU is well aware of this, Eichhorst said, as she has passed on the message, adding that “today the foreign ministers are looking at what we can do in addition to help Lebanon,” aside from its financial aid.
“What is good today is you have the 27 [foreign ministers] discussing Lebanon, joining hands to save Lebanon in a way” in a free-form-debate format that she said was “very unusual, and it shows the urgency” of the situation.
In a statement, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the ministers had “looked at how to enhance our support to Lebanon and Jordan,” noting the large refugee population in Lebanon.
While Eichhorst called Lebanon’s handling of the refugee influx “remarkable,” she said it needed “huge financial assistance” to cope. But she noted that the country had “had a lot already,” although perhaps not what it expected from the pledges made at January’s Kuwait donor conference.
Essential to Lebanon’s stability and also important to the EU, Eichhorst said, was the process of forming a new government, as Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam is currently attempting to do.
The disassociation policy, which calls for Lebanon to separate itself from its neighbor’s war, is dear to the EU, and Eichhorst reiterated that “everybody who engages in Syria, [this] goes against Lebanon’s disassociation policy. The message is very clear.”
But despite the policy and what Eichhorst says are valiant efforts by security forces to de-escalate tensions; Syrian rebels fired rockets into Hermel over the weekend alongside threats by the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front that they would take their fight to Lebanon if Hezbollah continued to fight alongside Assad’s forces.
On incidents at the border including alleged smuggling and the latest escalation, Eichhorst said: “We are concerned when you have increased shelling. We condemned the first shellings that came in from Syria.”
“I don’t have any interest in singling out any particular group because there are so many involved in Syria, and I think we have to be fair and say, ‘stop, all of you,’” she said. “Because it is really bad for Lebanon, what is happening. It is bad for everybody.”