BEIRUT - Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called on Monday for
international action to help Lebanon cope with a deluge of refugees from the war
in neighboring Syria which he said threatened to set his volatile country
In an interview with Reuters at the presidential palace
overlooking Beirut - and just 25 miles (40 km) from the Syrian-Lebanese border -
Suleiman compared Syria's civil war to a conflagration breaking out next
"When there is a fire next to your house, you have to assume that
it will spread and you have to try to stop it reaching you," Suleiman, a former
army chief elected president as part of a peace deal to end sectarian clashes in
Beirut in 2008.
Suleiman said the presence of a million Syrians alongside
an existing Palestinian refugee population meant that a quarter of his tiny
Mediterranean nation's population were now refugees.
"Those numbers are
more than the capacity of any country to bear," he said. "It's not just a matter
of material help and relief - the geographic and demographic capacity is
saturated and the problems resulting from this massive number affect us
socially, economically and on security." Lebanon says it is now hosting 1
million Syrians, one third of them officially registered as refugees fleeing a
conflict which has killed 70,000 people, according to the United Nations. The
remainder are mostly guest workers and their families.
They live among a
nation of 4 million, a quarter of the size of Switzerland, which fought a
devastating 1975-1990 civil war and whose sectarian fault-lines between
Christians, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have been exacerbated by the fighting in
Suleiman called for an international conference to find ways for
other countries to absorb the refugees, along the lines of a 1979 Geneva
Convention in which Western nations agreed to settle tens of thousands of "boat
people" who fled the war in Vietnam.
"The world should think about how to
alleviate this burden from Lebanon.... For humanitarian reasons we cannot turn
back any refugee who is hungry, wounded, frightened or persecuted," he said.
"But what to do if there is an epidemic or hunger?" "The Syrian refugees should
be distributed (to other countries)," Suleiman said.
Danger to Lebanon
Sporadic violence has shaken Lebanon since the Syrian uprising erupted nearly
two years ago.
Dozens of people have been killed in street fighting in
the northern city of Tripoli between a Sunni Muslim majority - which strongly
supports the Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad - and a minority
from Assad's own Alawite sect.
In October a top security official, whose
investigations had implicated Syrian authorities in an alleged plot to set off
explosives in Lebanon, was killed by a Beirut car bomb. The assassination
triggered Sunni protests across the country.
"There is a danger. We have
to keep extinguishing the fire," said Suleiman, a Maronite Christian. "The fire
extinguisher should always be in our hands." "There is an ongoing war, but Syria
won't be divided or partitioned. It would be a catastrophe for all the region,
but it won't happen," the Lebanese leader said, calling for a concerted push by
world powers to end the crisis.
"They should find a political solution.
It is imperative that they have an international conference because the damage
of what is happening will not be confined to Syria, but will hurt all major
"Europe, Russia and the United States and major powers should
agree on a solution and should impose it on Arabs and on the Syrians," he
International divisions have paralyzed UN Security Council
action to halt the Syrian conflict. Russia and China have blocked three
resolutions backed by Western and some Arab states aimed at putting pressure on
Assad to stop the bloodshed.
"I am very worried about the situation,"
Suleiman said. "We are working to prevent the explosion. Nobody has any excuse
to avoid their responsibilities.
"Those who benefit from the existing
situation have no right to subject the country to a problem," he said,
apparently referring to Syria's local partisans including Hezbollah and its
allies, who dominate Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.
how long he believed Assad could stay in power, the 64-year-old Suleiman was
circumspect. "More than a month," he said. Asked if it could be years, he said: