European ministers in Lebanon to tackle Syria spillover


Swedish, Bulgarian and Polish foreign ministers met politicians in Beirut on Friday in an EU-backed attempt to urge Lebanese political blocks to cooperate in preventing violence in neighboring Syria spilling over the border.

“There is a clear worry (of a spillover). The worry is probably greater than we want to say it is,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told Reuters.

Lebanon has seen clashes between supporters and opponents of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the border region has been used by rebels to smuggle arms into Syria and take refuge from Syrian troops.

“Lebanon is involved in a sensitive balancing act …between the different forces in Lebanese society which are looking in different directions on the Syrian conflict,” Bildt said ahead of meetings with Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman and Speaker Nabih Berri.

Lebanon’s politicians are at odds over Syria, with Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah supporting long-time ally Assad, and others supporting the revolt.

Most agree that Syria’s crisis has the potential to destabilize Lebanon.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said after the talks that he was encouraged by willingness expressed among the politicians to engage in keeping Lebanon insulated from the situation in Syria.

“Lebanon, which has gone through several wars and knows devastation but also the benefits of peace and development, must speak louder in support of democracy and in support of the need for people to avoid the violence which is now occurring in Syria,” he told Reuters.

Bildt said the talks had made him more confident the blocks would be able to cooperate towards preventing the Syria unrest from spilling over to Lebanon.

Bildt said the European ministers had made no specific pledges on behalf of the EU, but said border control was one area where the EU might boost its support.

“There is an increased interest in helping with the building of state institutions,” he said. “Border control is for example one area where we give some support but more needs to be done.”

Noting that Lebanon is on the “frontline of the Syrian conflict”, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said: “The Middle East is even more in flux than usual, and while we have Syria sliding into civil war, the last thing we need is Lebanon to revert to the bad old ways.”