BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman held talks Friday evening with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt on National Dialogue and the parliamentary election law, as Lebanon grappled with its growing refugee crisis.
A statement issued by Baabda Palace said Sleiman hosted Mikati and Jumblatt for dinner, where they discussed a number of topics, “particularly those connected to National Dialogue and the election law.” No details emerged with regard to the discussion, which came after Lebanon, now a haven for over 180,000 Syrian refugees, demanded an extraordinary Arab League meeting to help it cope financially with the increasing number of displaced people on its territory.
The announcement by Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour underlined the urgency of the refugee problem facing cash-strapped Lebanon as it struggles to distance itself from the security and economic reverberations of the 21-month-old bloody conflict in Syria.
Mansour spoke by telephone with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby and briefed him on the situation of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He told Elaraby that “he will send him a memo in this regard containing Lebanon’s desire to call Arab foreign ministers to hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss this issue,” the National News Agency reported.
In response, Elaraby told Mansour that upon receiving the memo, he would make the necessary contacts with Arab ministers to hold the meeting within the next few days, the NNA said.
Mansour’s move was in line with the government’s comprehensive plan, approved Thursday, to meet the demands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
The government’s plan appeals to the international community for nearly $180 million to help Lebanon address the needs of the refugees. It includes steps such as urging donor countries to implement their pledges to extend aid to Lebanon and calling on the Arab League and international organizations to hold emergency meetings to highlight the plight of the refugees. The Cabinet also rejected calls by ministers from the Free Patriotic Movement to close the border with Syria in an attempt to halt the flow of refugees, which now number just over 180,000, according to a weekly report issued by the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees.
Earlier Friday, Mansour summoned the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, to discuss ways to deal with the flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, including the possibility of forming a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee for this purpose.
“The aim of this summons is to discuss what we can jointly do to facilitate the return of refugees to Syria and form a Lebanese-Syrian committee, made up of the agencies concerned with this [refugee] issue in both countries,” Mansour told reporters after his meeting with Ali.
Ali said he agreed with Mansour on the need to continue coordination through the Syrian Embassy in Beirut to alleviate refugee suffering. He added that many refugees had already returned home after the restoration of security in areas ravaged by violence. “I told Minister Mansour that many Syrians in neighboring sisterly countries are returning by themselves to their home country,” Ali said. “Syria welcomes the return of all its citizens, particularly given that security is being restored in hot spots and some terrorist groups and gunmen are either surrendering or being eliminated,” he added.
Ali claimed that Syrian government forces were regaining control over all areas from rebel groups. The ambassador accused some media outlets and some intelligence agencies through websites of “twisting facts” on the battlefield. He said the rebels might be able to penetrate areas in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other Syrian provinces with “bombings or targeting a school bus or a bus station.”
“This happens in Syria and may happen in any country in the world. But those [rebels] have realized, as their sponsors and financiers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Europe and America did, that this path is doomed to frustration and failure.”
Ali also urged Lebanon to determine which of arriving refugees were seeking temporary shelter and which were “terrorists coming here to carry out bombings here and there, or those who participated in shedding the blood of Syrians.”
“It is in the interest of the two countries that there are no supporters for extremist or takfiri forces, or a sanctuary for external forces seeking to tamper with the security of the two countries to serve Israel or other foreign ambitions,” Ali said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Maura Connelly praised Lebanon’s adoption of the refugee plan during a meeting with Energy Minister Gebran Bassil. “The ambassador welcomed the Cabinet’s decision to adopt a comprehensive plan to meet the needs of refugees from Syria,” said a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.
“She praised the decision of the Lebanese government to continue to meet its international humanitarian obligations toward refugees, including maintaining an open border and protecting refugees from harassment,” the statement said.
Connelly recognized the urgent need for international assistance for the humanitarian crisis created by increased refugee flows and “reiterated the U.S. commitment to respond positively in addressing the needs of Syrian refugees and the communities that host them.”
“To date, the U.S. has provided approximately $210 million in humanitarian aid to those inside Syria and those who have fled to neighboring countries,” she said.
Connelly also met with former President Amin Gemayel at his residence in Bikfaya to discuss the security fallout of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon.
In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, Gemayel warned of “uncalculated repercussions” on Lebanon, saying the country had limited financial and economic resources and was unable to shoulder alone the burdens of the refugees.