Since the start of the serious violence in Syria, the country that has felt the most direct practical impact has been neighbouring Lebanon. The consequences of the crisis have been political, economic and social. In Beirut, pressures linked to Syria prompted Najib Mikati to resign as prime minister, but he has remained in a caretaker capacity.
As preparations continue for a new government to be formed, Daleen Hassan went to speak with him.
Daleen Hassan, euronews: “Lebanon is following a ‘keep-its-distance’ policy toward Syria. How much has Lebanon been affected by this crisis?”
Caretaker Prime Minister of Lebanon Najib Mikati: “I believe that the self-distancing policy is absolutely the appropriate policy for the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people, looking at the developments in the region,
and especially seeing what is happening in Syria, which is highly significant for Lebanon. We have had to consider the historical and geographical relationship between Lebanon and Syria, as well as the split in Lebanese society into pro- and anti- political positions involving Syrian events. I think it’s the right attitude to keep for the up-coming government, in the future, because that’s what will protect Lebanon from the consequences of what is going on in the region.”
euronews: “In the absence of a new government, as caretaker prime minister, how are you handling the Syrian crisis consequences, especially the refugees crisis?”
Mikati: “This case is primarily a humanitarian case, not a political one. When a Syrian citizen – who is a brother to us Lebanese people – seeks refuge in Lebanon, asking for a safe place, we must respond to that request. However, the number of refugees is enormous; we have about 750,000 refugees registered with international organisations; they hold refugee status. Then there are Syrians straddling between Syria and Lebanon: more than 300,000 Syrians who are not registered as refugees but who are currently in Lebanon. We as a Lebanese government are doing our duty towards the Syrian refugees who are on our territory.”
euronews: “People in Beirut say that the presence of the Syrians has made problems for the Lebanese worse; must they bear the consequences of the Syrian crisis?”
Mikati: “When Lebanon had a civil war, Syria opened its doors to receive the Lebanese people over the years; we will not close the door in the faces of the Syrians today. But the Lebanese state must control this, so that the number of Syrians in Lebanon only increases according to certain conditions; we are monitoring the Lebanese borders as well. Therefore, every Syrian in Lebanon who does not apply for refugee status will have his status reconsidered.”
euronews: “Has Lebanon benefited economically in any way from the Syrian crisis?”
Mikati: “No, on the contrary: the last assessment carried out by the international bank in a special study showed Lebanon had been damaged by the crisis, and that it has had a direct impact on growth.”
euronews: “Some Lebanese bankers indicated that many Syrians with capital assets had deposited money in Lebanese banks. Wouldn’t you think that would contribute to the Lebanese economy?”
Mikati: “I’ll tell you frankly: Lebanese banks are cautious, under these circumstances in particular, about attracting deposits from the Syrians. Lebanese banks are doing their job of overseeing accounts, to make sure who the owners of these accounts are, because we do not want there to be grounds for any doubt by the international community over certain accounts held in Lebanese banks.”
euronews [this part of the transcript omits Mikati’s attempts to intervene; the journalist perseveres and completes the question]: “There is talk about transfers of money to Lebanese banks by people linked to the Syrian regime, such as senior statesmen; yet is that not in breach of the sanctions imposed on Damascus?”
Mikati: “Lebanese banks are in the process of verifying all the accounts and people who wish to put their money in Lebanese banks. Therefore, I do not think that what has came from Syria is a huge amount of money – because of these measures.”
euronews: “Let’s talk about Hezbollah, which recently admitted it is fighting in support of the Syrian regime; there is also an influx of weapons and fighters who support the uprising in Syria, and want to help the Free Army. As a government, how are you dealing with this; have there been any measures to prevent weapons and fighters from getting into Syria?”
Mikati: “Since the first day any of these parties got involved in the Syrian war, we urged them not to become involved in Syria’s affairs, because it would not make a difference for Lebanon. My position is to look out for Lebanon’s interest, and therefore I repeat my appeal to everyone to have no dealings in Syrian affairs, either at close range or from a distance – because it hurts the Lebanese interest.”
euronews: “The European Union classifies the military wing of the Hezbollah party as a terrorist organisation; how does the government in Beirut deal with that decision?”
Mikati: “We are waiting for measures to be undertaken by the European Union. The case should be re-considered after six months. Then our government will ask the EU to reconsider its decision.”
euronews: “There have been suspicions and accusations recently that the Syrian regime has transferred part of its chemical weapons to Lebanese territory; is there any truth to those rumours?”
Mikati: “l give my personal assurance that that is not true. We have not had any information about that, and the secretary-general of Hezbollah confirmed those accusations were invalid.”
euronews: “In the case of a military strike against Syria, how would Lebanon deal with the potential consequences?”
Mikati: “We look constantly at the implications for Lebanon. When the threats against Syria started, we took precautions and we had some diplomatic contacts, but, thank God, the strike was avoided, and they are pursuing a political path to end the crisis. Lebanon has advocated a political solution, as best-suited for what is happening in Syria.”
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