BAABDA, Lebanon: Italian Ambassador Giuseppe Morabito argued Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s refusal to abandon power remains the main obstacle to solving the protracted crisis in Lebanon’s biggest neighbor.
The Italian envoy to Beirut also said he believes Lebanon should not be left to face the influx of refugees alone.
“Lebanon, among its neighbors, is the weakest and has received a lot of people in a very short period of time,” Morabito told The Daily Star in an interview. “We cannot leave Lebanon to face this crisis alone.”
He added that such a large influx of refugees would create “huge” problems in any country. Comparatively, he said “it’s like Italy receiving 3 million immigrants in less than one year.”
Morabito, who toured the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila this week to check on Palestinians who fled Syria, said the European Union and international organizations will pursue efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that has hit the Levant.
Morabito described the Cabinet’s plan to attract funds from donor countries and organizations to help the country’s Syrian refugee population as a “very detailed and serious” program, adding that it should be considered as a road map for administering aid.
“We can and should do more,” he said, adding that Lebanon should not be “ashamed to ask for international help.”
Morabito also underlined that hosting Syrian refugees was a “shared responsibility” between Syria’s neighbors. “It’s not fair to say that only Lebanon or Jordan should accept refugees.”
The envoy reiterated his country’s support for an inclusive political resolution brokered by the Syrian people to the country’s crisis, saying Italy still backs the mission of United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Morabito, who conceded that the rise of extremism in the region was a source of worry for the EU, explained that an inclusive solution to the unrest in Syria must include all the components of the Syrian society, with no discrimination between ethnic and confessional groups.
“In this framework, we must reassure the Christians, the Alawites, the Druze and all the other minorities,” he said.
Regarding the domestic situation in Lebanon, Morabito said Lebanon currently has a “unique opportunity” in its history to avoid any form of “undue dependence from Syria.”
“It’s a chance to have normal relations with Syria, a country that Lebanon shares narrow ties with due to historical and geographical reasons,” he said. “I am confident that Lebanese political forces will seize this opportunity.”
While the diplomat hailed the so-called “disassociation policy” adopted by the Lebanese government with regard to events next door, he highlighted that Lebanon needs a “strong and stable government” to take up political and economic challenges resulting from events in Syria.
He also underlined the need to hold “free, fair and transparent” elections, adding that if a new electoral law is devised, “it is important to have one that is most representative of the Lebanese people.”
Over the past several weeks, Lebanese lawmakers have been debating to no avail the electoral formula according to which the 2013 legislative elections will be conducted.
According to Morabito, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon significantly contributes to stability in Lebanon and the region.
He said the countries that make up UNIFIL are aware of the threats the peacekeepers face. The force came under attack several times after it was beefed up in the wake of the summer 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel.
“There is always a list of threats,” the diplomat added. “Of course the influx of refugees can create major problems, but until now UNIFIL has managed the situation.”
Morabito argued that although its mandate and presence is limited to south Lebanon, UNIFIL’s presence there has allowed Lebanese security forces to deploy more troops in north Lebanon to monitor the currently highly volatile border with Syria.
Following repeated Syrian incursions and cross-border shelling, the Lebanese Cabinet approved in July a plan to boost the military presence along the border with Syria. Consequently, the Lebanese Army diminished its presence in south Lebanon, relocating some troops to the north.
Morabito, who saluted the “wonderful cooperation” between UNIFIL and Lebanese security forces, said Italy’s 2011 decision to downsize its contingent in the international peacekeeping force “has become an old story now.”
“With fewer personnel we are able to achieve similar results,” he added.
Morabito reiterated his country’s strong commitment to UNIFIL, while noting that Italy is still one of the biggest contingents and that the current commander of the force, Maj. Gen. Paolo Serra, is Italian.
“The proof that we have enough people is that the crisis in Syria has not spilled over, not in the north or the south,” he said.
Tackling trade relations with Lebanon, Morabito said that they were “going well” but that more needs to be done in terms of diversifying exports.
“We should do more to meet Lebanese requirements,” he said. “We also aim to create partnerships between Lebanese and Italian companies.”
He also highlighted a visit last week of the head of the Italian National Research Council Luigi Nicolai that he said aimed at bolstering ties between Lebanon and Italy in the fields of science and research.
“You have fantastic academic institutions but you need to improve the system of instruction,” Morabito said. “To do that, you need a strong and stable government.”