Unsafe for Syrian refugees to return as along as Assad is in power, says U.K. ambassador

British Ambassador Hugo Shorter
British Ambassador Hugo Shorter

BEIRUT: British  Am­bas­sador to Le­banon Hugo Shorter warned   in an interview this week that it would not be safe to re­turn refugees from Le­banon,  as long as  Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad re­mains in power, Lebanese media reported

Shorter warned that the “tremen­dous bru­tal­ity” of the regime was a stum­bling block to a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment or refugee re­turn.

“The As­sad regime … has bar­rel-bombed its own pop­u­la­tion, has gassed its own pop­u­la­tion, starved its own pop­u­la­tion. I don’t see how any part of Syria where As­sad is still in charge can be some­where th­ese refugees who have fled here [to Le­banon] are go­ing to be able, safely, re­turn to and feel com­fort­able about re­turn­ing to,” he said.

The am­bas­sador re­it­er­ated the U.K. gov­ern­ment’s long-held stance that calls for  As­sad to step aside. How­ever, when asked how the U.K. would ne­go­ti­ate if As­sad doesn’t va­cate his post, Shorter said sim­ply: “We don’t ac­cept that sce­nario.”

“We con­tinue to say that for real sta­bi­liza­tion, re­con­struc­tion to hap­pen in Syria there needs to be clear tran­si­tion un­der­way away from the As­sad regime,” he stressed.

Commenting on claims by pro-Syrian politicians that the country is now safe  enough  to be­gin this process  of their return  he said  this is  “misrepresentation of  what is  actually hap­pen­ing there.”

President Michel Aoun and other pro-Syrian politicians   have been calling for the return of the refugees ,  claiming that 85 % of Syria is now in the hands of the regime , while March 14 politicians have been warning about such a premature move, while Assad is in power .

Aoun is a stanch ally of  the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group and the Syrian regime

The am­bas­sador cau­tioned against rush­ing the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees, say­ing this was a process that had to be done cor­rectly. “I think there’s a risk of go­ing down the wrong track with a pre­ma­ture de­ci­sion [to re­turn Syr­ian refugees] which ev­ery­one will live to re­gret.”

Le­banon is cur­rently host­ing over 1.5 mil­lion refugees from Syria.

Shorter also  ex­pressed s con­cerns about Hezbol­lah’s grow­ing re­gional in­flu­ence.

“We’re ex­tremely con­cerned by Hezbol­lah’s re­gional ac­tiv­i­ties, desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tiv­i­ties that have fu­eled con­flict in Syria, Ye­men and Iraq. Here in Le­banon, there is a de­ci­sion for the Le­banese peo­ple as a whole as to what kind of coun­try they want to live in,” he said.

Touch­ing on re­cent U.S. and Is­raeli rhetoric re­gard­ing Hezbol­lah and its re­la­tion­ship to the state – par­tic­u­larly re­cent com­ments that the two were now in­dis­tin­guish­able, mak­ing the Le­banese state a le­git­i­mate tar­get in fu­ture con­flicts – the U.K. am­bas­sador called on all par­ties to step back in or­der for diplo­macy to pre­vail.

“That kind of rhetoric on both sides is not help­ful to­ward main­tain­ing sta­bil­ity here,” he said.

“I don’t be­lieve that any form of mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion or con­flict is ul­ti­mately the way to guar­an­tee sta­bil­ity over the long term … There is a ques­tion of how at some point di­a­log can be made to hap­pen in a con­struc­tive way but that to my view is the cen­tral ques­tion.”