Lebanon News

Europe must help Syria’s neighbors: Austrian minister

BEIRUT: A rapid and united European course of action is required in order to stabilize countries receiving refugees in the region and fight the root causes of migration, visiting Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Friday. Speaking to The Daily Star via email, Kurz said Lebanon was a very important partner for his country in the region.

“A rapid and lasting political solution for the conflict in Syria is in our common interest,” Kurz stressed, and said he urged Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate the rising tensions in the region.

Below is the text of the full Q&A conversation:

Q: Do you have plans to improve bilateral relations with Lebanon?

A: Austria and Lebanon can look back on a long and stable [history of] diplomatic relations. Lebanon is a very important partner for us in the region. However, we want to develop our relations further ... Therefore I signed a joint declaration with Foreign Minister [Gebran] Bassil in order to realize the full potential of our bilateral relations. It encourages the regular holding of an Austrian-Lebanese economic forum and provides for more cooperation in the area of interreligious dialogue through, for example, building a network of experts.

Q: To what extent can and will Austria increase its aid for the refugee crisis in Lebanon?

A: Austria has agreed to contribute 11.5 million euros ($12.5 million) to the EU-Syria Fund. In addition to that we support Syrian refugees in Lebanon with an additional 5 million euros that has been given to UNHCR and UNICEF. Furthermore, Austria has given the [World Food Program] more than 5 million euros in food aid for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, including Lebanon. With this we want to contribute to Syrian refugees being well provided for where they are, so that they don’t have to continue to flee [to other countries].

Q: To what extent is Austria involved in deciding how this money is allocated?

A: Austria is actively participating within the EU framework. The goal is a rapid and united EU course of action, in order to stabilize countries receiving refugees in the region and fight the root causes of migration.

Q: To what extent is Austria prepared to extend its contingent of 1,900 resettlement places for Syrian refugees?

A: Austria has already accepted 1,500 refugees through the resettlement program. Meanwhile, Austria is one of the most [affected] countries per capita in Europe ... We are not only a country for transit, but also a final destination. Every day we have an average of around 500 asylum requests, and we are expecting an overall sum of more than 90,000 asylum requests for 2015 – in per capita terms this means we will have exceeded Germany.

Q: Are tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran putting agreements on Syria at risk?

A: A rapid and lasting political solution for the conflict in Syria is in our common interest. Therefore it is crucial that all regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, who both play an important role in the resolution of the conflict, remain at the negotiating table.

Q: In what role does Austria see itself with regard to the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

A: We are supporting the work of the International Syria Support Group, which has met twice so far in Vienna and showed its determination to achieve a cease-fire and bring the warring factions to the negotiating table ... Further, I am personally in contact with Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, urging for the de-escalation of the situation.

Q: What is Austria’s position on the military intervention in Syria?

A: The inapprehensible attacks in Paris and Beirut have shown us again how drastically important it is to have a comprehensive, international approach against terrorism and extremism. No state can win the fight against the international terrorism of Daesh and Al-Qaeda alone, only together ... In Austria we value prevention and deradicalization, as there is no place in our society for extremist ideas and we have multiple returnees from Syria and Iraq.

Q: What is Austria’s position with regard to the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad?

A: We must conduct negotiations for a cease-fire and a political transition process with all relevant actors, including the regime in Damascus, as it is provided for in the Vienna action plan. Yet, it is also clear that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 09, 2016, on page 3.




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