As the Syrian conflict drags on, its sectarian dimensions are becoming more pronounced, increasing the possibility that violence will further push into Lebanon, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson. Speaking to reporters this week during a visit to Lebanon, Eliasson said strife in Syria had dominated the discussions he had held with political leaders in the country.
Calling the situation in Syria “critical,” he said the war was “turning more and more sectarian and ethnic and religious, and with that national borders start to lose relevance,” with tensions extending beyond them.
“You [Lebanon] are the ones, historically, who have always paid the price of some of the actions of outside sources utilizing the religious or ethnic aspects in Syria.”
Although he said the U.N. remained committed to reaching a political solution to the 21-month uprising against President Bashar Assad, he acknowledged that divisions within the Security Council “make this very difficult.”
Russia has blocked attempts by other Security Council members to move on Syria, and U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s recent talks with the U.S. and Russia on a possible transitional government appeared to yield little more than an acceptance that a political process should be the goal.
Eliasson said he had recently spoken to Brahimi, who is working from last June’s Geneva Declaration that calls for a transitional government.
The U.N. official cited “some progress, but still some ways to go before we can see a consensus in positions.” In the meantime, Eliasson said the “muscular power of the United Nations is diminished” by the current lack of unity, adding that divisions in the Security Council “translate to weakness in our possibility of stopping this.”
The U.N. is planning for what Eliasson called “day after” scenarios in Syria, which he said originally included programs such as institution building, establishing the rule of law, and help in areas like health and education.
Eliasson said there appeared to be a growing need for reconciliation efforts, given the fierceness and length of the fighting. He added that he could not rule out the possibility that the Security Council would have to consider some sort of presence in a post-conflict Syria, be it in the form of peacekeepers or observers.
During his time in Lebanon, Eliasson visited with Syrian refugees, 150,000 of whom are now registered in the country. The diplomat had penciled notes in the inside cover of a pocket-sized U.N. Charter from his conversations with refugees, and even in their abbreviated form they managed to convey many of the difficulties that refugees face. He read them aloud: “problems with registration; time; medical care; political activist; human rights activist; threat to his family; mother of six children; husband in Saudi Arabia; neighbor had to leave but her children were kidnapped and they had to pay ransom.”
But Eliasson also expressed appreciation for Lebanon’s “generosity and hospitality” in hosting refugees. Unlike Turkey and Jordan, which also host large refugee populations, Lebanon has so far not established camps, a choice the U.N. official called a national one.
The U.N. is also well aware of the financial implications of the refugee issue for the country, Eliasson said, pledging to make the case for supporting both national and United Nations programs that are assisting refugees.
Despite the recent round of fighting in Tripoli between rival pro- and anti-Assad neighborhoods, Eliasson deemed Lebanon’s disassociation policy toward the Syrian conflict a successful strategy.
“We commend that policy very strongly, and I think there is reason to make the point that all parties need to live up to that declaration because … in the U.N. we are impressed that you have kept yourselves away from the conflict. There were many who feared that you very easily would be drawn into it, but you have managed it very well,” he said.
Keeping a distance from what he described as a civil war will be a boon to Lebanon’s own security and stability.
“You [Lebanon] have suffered so much in the past, you have been the pawns in geopolitical chess games regionally and internationally, and … I hope this time you will not be drawn into it.”
As for south Lebanon, where he visited with UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Paolo Serra, Eliasson left with the impression that the situation was “relatively stable and quiet.”
Eliasson would not be drawn on domestic politics, other than to say he had received “a very strong message of trying to work together” from his talks with high-level politicians.
Among those with whom he met were President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi.
Eliasson had originally planned to meet with Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt, but he met instead with PSP official Aridi as Jumblatt had been abroad.
“Without going into details,” he said, “there is hope of improving the contacts” that are currently stalled by March 14’s boycott of National Dialogue and Parliament sessions attended by Cabinet members which the opposition has vowed to continue until Mikati’s government resigns.