Lebanon News

Interview: U.N. envoy tells Lebanon: Prepare for storm from Syria

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top U.N. official, whose tenure ends this month, advised the country to prepare for the looming “storm” the unrest in Syria might trigger, while adding that Syrian President Bashar Assad was incapable of “any meaningful reform.”

U.N. Special Coordination for Lebanon Michael Williams said he expected the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to fulfill its obligations toward the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and warned that several European countries will pull out their troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in the event of future attacks.

Williams explained that the implications of the unrest in Syria, more so than the divisive STL, will constitute the biggest challenge the country will face in the coming period.

“The STL is another [challenge] but if you ask me to rank them, I would say in the immediate future, in the following year – Syria and what is happening there,” Williams, told The Daily Star. He believes that Lebanon must “prepare for the storm” hailing from Syria.

“There are particularly difficult outcomes [from events in Syria] which may or may not happen,” he said. “What if the Sunnis turned against Alawites or against Christians? That could have consequences in Lebanon.”

Economy and the flow of refugees are other major challenges, according to the U.N. special coordinator.

“Will Syria’s economy suffer badly for example? Will this impact Lebanon?” he asked, adding that the flow of refugees was another issue.

“So far numbers have been relatively small, 2,000 to 4,000 or so, and Lebanon was able to handle them well, but if there were bigger incidents, there could be larger movements – so that’s a worry,” he said.

But Williams believes that the key to avoiding sectarian conflicts in the Levant region is not Assad staying in power. “Alas he has shown himself incapable of any meaningful reform.”

Williams, who held talks about Lebanon and Syria in Cairo over the weekend with Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammad Amr, said the Syrian government lacked any political purpose and any political program.

“The Lebanese Parliament has many problems, but when I go there I see people debating and arguing and it reminds me of the British Parliament in many ways,” said Williams.

“If you go to the Syrian Parliament – I don’t know – It’s like something from the Soviet Union in the 1950s; everybody just applauds the great leader – there is no real debate,” he added.

Williams said the Syrian government cannot deal with so many problems except by violence, describing such an approach as a “way of the past.”

He added problems are dealt with by trying to develop political consensus behind an issue, citing consensus reached by the Lebanese government over the reform of the electricity sector as a typical example.

In fact, Williams seems satisfied with the months-old Mikati government, adding that the latter was “interested in developing stronger ties with the international community.”

“I think frankly the Mikati government has not done too bad, the electricity bill was the first big challenge and if it goes ahead that would be good,” he said, while advising the current government to focus more on issues affecting the daily lives of the Lebanese such as public transport and the environment.

Williams added that the Mikati government was acting “wisely” on several issues, namely those related to the search for suspects named in the indictments issued by the Netherlands-based STL, which is probing the 2005 assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri.

“One doesn’t know whether these people are here or whether they are gone or whether they are here in inaccessible areas,” he said. “I don’t think that a Saad Hariri government would have done a different outcome.”

Hezbollah, which dominates the government, was also acting “cautiously on the whole,” according to Williams.

“Government does have to fulfill obligations to the court and for Hezbollah this is a challenge but I don’t believe they want to see the government fall,” said Williams. “It’s a bit like the electrical dispute; people have very strong opinions but when it comes to it they usually compromise in a Lebanese way.”

The U.N. envoy who held multiple rounds of dialogue with Hezbollah officials, describes the controversial group as a “party to the peace,” he also considers their stance with regard to the STL as “quite interesting.”

“[Hezbollah] is not as remote from [STL] as we thought six months ago – we thought that the publication of the indictments will bring demonstrations of violence we’ve heard nothing of that,” he said.

He also urged the Lebanese government to start exploiting the country’s offshore gas reserves “as soon as possible” and downplayed the possibility of a war erupting between Lebanon and Israel over disputed zones.

Williams stressed that future attacks on U.N. peacekeepers or any humiliation of these forces will not be tolerated, with European contributors threatening to pull out their troops serving as part of UNIFIL.

“I think France and some of the others like Spain and Italy could not tolerate another bomb attack – that would be unacceptable,” said Williams. “They also do not like to see any humiliation of their forces [or to see them] held against their will, their cameras and GPS [devices] taken away.”

The diplomat, who will present his last briefing on Lebanon to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in early October, said the U.N. took “very seriously” the roadside attacks on May 27 against Italian peacekeepers and on June 26 against French ones, and expressed serious worries about many crimes going unpunished in Lebanon.

Asked whether Islamist groups stood behind the attacks on UNIFIL peacekeepers, Williams’ answer was a concise “maybe.” He explained that the road was quite long from Beirut all the way down to the southern port city of Tyre, adding that the Sidon area was particularly “vulnerable.”

Both attacks against UNIFIL this year happened in the vicinity of the port city of Sidon, home to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, a hub for extremist groups and outlaws.

Williams called for a tighter security grip along the highway leading to south Lebanon, urging for more checkpoints more standing patrols and more road patrols.

“We can’t have a repeat of those [attacks] – that could easily lead to a lot of Europeans going,” he added.

Williams revealed he was sad to be leaving “the only democracy in the Arab world,” and one of the most satisfying mission he has done.

“The realities of Lebanon and its situation in the Middle East are that you will never achieve everything,” he said.

“Lebanon is a small country and it’s flanked by two difficult neighbors, Israel and Syria, but you can’t change geography,” Williams added.

He described his job as U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon as “tiring” as it requires the ability to develop relationships with a vast array of people of different confessional faiths and of different politics and backgrounds.

He also advises his successor to be patient: Having patience is required in enormous quantities and trying to treat each [group] with respect and engage in a real dialogue with them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 12, 2011, on page 2.

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