BEIRUT: Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Wednesday to host a conference on efforts to help Lebanon and other countries cope with the vast wave of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.
Putin said Russia was also prepared to provide tents, medication and other humanitarian aid, during talks with President Michel Sleiman at the Russian president’s residence outside Moscow.
“We will do our utmost to ... sponsor the organization of an international conference on the refugee problem,” Putin said.
“We are ready to offer Moscow as a platform for such a meeting.”
Sleiman said more than 200,000 refugees have fled to Lebanon since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began nearly two years ago, straining Beirut’s resources and budget.
The March 8-dominated government, headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, has officially sought to disassociate itself from the conflict in Syria and has resisted calls from humanitarian agencies to set up formal refugee camps like those in Jordan and Turkey.
“There are more than 200,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone, and we do not know how many more Syrian refugees will come to our territory,” Sleiman said. “Lebanon has no financial ... means to house such a number of refugees.”
As the United Nations said Wednesday that more than 650,000 people have already fled Syria to neighboring countries, Putin reiterated Russia’s readiness to bring together influential countries to tackle the issue of Syrian refugees. “If the interested nations agree to this, we will be ready to propose Moscow as the venue,” Putin said. On the last day of his three-day visit to Moscow, Sleiman discussed with his Russian counterpart relations between the two countries amid the ongoing developments in the Middle East.
Political sources from the Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that Putin also offered Russia’s help to rebuild Lebanon’s railway system to reduce traffic on its highways. “Putin told Sleiman that Russian railway companies are willing to help Lebanon rebuild its railway system to tackle problems resulting from traffic,” one source said.
But the sources said that Sleiman was unable to resolve the issue of Russia’s military assistance to the Lebanese Army during his meeting with Putin.
“Military assistance depends on whether the Parliament passes the bilateral military cooperation law with Russia,” the source said.
Russia had pledged to send a number of MIG fighter jets to the Lebanese Army as part of its military aid to Lebanon. But the pledge was not fulfilled after an international embargo was imposed on the transfer of heavy and sophisticated arms to Lebanon.
The source also said that Putin praised Sleiman’s role in bridging Lebanon’s political divide, adding that Sleiman was the first president in the Arab world to visit Putin after his recent election as president.
According to the source, Russia’s praise of Sleiman signals the country’s commitment to Christians in the Middle East.
“Russia is playing a key role in the Middle East and Putin’s support of Sleiman’s stances is a positive development.”
“Putin also told Sleiman that Russian gas companies were interested in opening refineries in Lebanon,” the source added.
Separately, Baabda Palace sources denounced Mikati’s rejection of debating the issue of civil marriage in the country.
“It is strange that the Prime Minister Najib Mikati had to wait for President Sleiman to leave to make a statement on the issue,” another source said.
Several days after Sleiman called for legalizing civil marriage in Lebanon, Mikati rejected talks aimed at addressing the issue, arguing that such a debate is useless given the challenges facing the country.
“Debate over civil marriage is currently not on the agenda since it was discussed years ago ... This issue faced opposition and conflicts of opinion, and we don’t need to get into useless debates in these circumstances,” Mikati said at the start of a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail Tuesday.
Sleiman tweeted to his followers earlier this week that legalizing marriage outside religious institutions would open the way to abolishing sectarianism.
His statement came shortly after a couple announced they had signed a civil marriage contract and were seeking the Interior Ministry’s approval of the contract.
Baabda sources told The Daily Star that Sleiman would summon Mikati in the next few days to seek clarification on the subject.
Many ministers in the Cabinet have voiced support for the couple’s marriage but sources at the Grand Serail said that Mikati won’t place the issue on the Cabinet’s agenda as long as he is prime minister.