Lebanon’s foreign minister has rebuffed a call by the U.S. ambassador for the Beirut government to protect all Syrians who have fled across the border into Lebanese territory, as four more high-ranking officers have defected from the Syrian armed forces.
The diplomatic spat illustrates Lebanon’s difficulties in dealing with the crisis in its neighbor Syria, which once controlled it and still has powerful allies in its government.
U.S. envoy Maura Connelly visited Interior Minister Marwan Charbel on Tuesday and, while noting Lebanon’s right and responsibility to secure its borders, urged the authorities to protect “all disarmed Syrians, including members of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army,” according to the embassy’s website.
She also “reaffirmed the United States’ concern for the disappearance and kidnappings of Syrian nationals in Lebanon.”
Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, who is close to the pro-Syrian Amal faction, responded sharply. “Lebanon cannot heed such a request … Lebanon does not act upon a request, but out of self-interest for the country’s security,” he said, according to Reuters.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati reinforced that rebuke, saying on his website on Wednesday that the cabinet reminds “diplomatic bodies working in Lebanon of the paramount importance of respecting the Vienna Agreement, Lebanese state institutions and laws.”
The 1961 Vienna Convention is a treaty that defines a framework for diplomatic relations, obliging diplomats to respect the laws and regulations of host states.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman said Connelly had not been responding to specific incidents, but that her comments were consistent with the U.S. position on humanitarian law.
Lebanon has been divided over how to respond to the year-long uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many politicians have worked to contain the tensions, but former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri raised the temperature this week when he accused Assad of leading a murderous campaign against his people.
More than 7,000 Syrian refugees have fled into northern Lebanon, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Syrian forces intervened in Lebanon’s civil war in 1976 and remained until 2005 when an outcry over the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri forced them to withdraw.
At the time some Lebanese politicians accused Syria of being behind the killing of Hariri, father of Saad al-Hariri. A U.N.-backed special tribunal has indicted four members of the Syrian-and Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. Syria and Hezbollah deny any part in the assassination.
Meanwhile, four more high-ranking officers have defected from the Syrian armed forces and joined the year-old uprising against Assad’s rule, two rebel groups said on Thursday.
The men fled over the past three days to a camp for Syrian army deserters in southern Turkey, according to Lieutenant Khaled al-Hamoud, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He told Reuters by telephone from Turkey the desertions bring to seven the number of brigadier generals who have defected.
The seven are the highest-ranking officers to abandon Assad, and the rank is the fifth highest in the Syrian armed forces. Mustafa Sheikh was the first brigadier general to announce his defection.
“We have six brigadier generals who are now in Turkey and another, who has stayed to lead some battalions inside Syria,” Hamoud said. “We plan to form an advisory council to absorb these and any other high-ranking defections and this group will plan operations for the FSA.”
A Paris-based spokesman for Sheikh’s Supreme Syrian Military Council, Fahad al-Masri, said the four recent defectors were still under the observation of Turkish authorities and their names could not yet be released.
The rebels are also concerned for the safety of the men’s families, who have not left Syria, the two spokesmen said. They said Syrian forces had arrested the family of Brigadier General Faez Amro, who fled to Turkey last month. There have been several reports of defecting officers’ relatives being killed.
The new defections also highlight tensions over the rebel command. Hamoud said the defecting officers would be advisers to the FSA, headed by its founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad. But the other spokesman, Fahad al-Masri, said they would join Sheikh’s Military Council.
In-fighting could weaken the defectors, now a lightly armed force of 20,000 opposing the government’s almost 300,000 strong military equipped with tanks and heavy artillery.
The senior rebel officer remaining in Syria is Brigadier General Adnan Farzat, who announced his defection in a YouTube video on Tuesday, saying he objected to the intensified shelling in his home town.
He will operate in the battered Homs province, parts of which have been severely damaged during the Syrian forces’ crackdown on centers of rebellion against four decades of Assad family rule.