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Department of Political Affairs

Aiming to keep Lebanon safe from Syria's conflict

One of the most serious concerns about Syria's spiraling conflict is that it could drag its already volatile neighborhood into its vortex, fueling a regional war. Nowhere are these fears more pronounced, and rising, than in Lebanon, a nation whose entire recent history, as the UN's top envoy to the country describes it, "is a story of interaction with Syria".

Derek Plumbly, a longtime British diplomat for the Middle East, who took up the post of United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon just over a year ago, shared some of his insights into the situation in an interview with DPA E-News.  

Plumbly's main task at the helm of the UN's Beirut-based political office in Lebanon, UNSCOL is to help implement a 2006 Security Council resolution that ended that year's conflict with Israel. While UN peacekeepers patrol the south, UNSCOL's small civilian team pursues the political dimensions of the resolution.  All the while, Plumbly is keeping an ever closer eye on Syria in hopes that its increasingly worrisome spillover does not disrupt the fragile equilibrium inside Lebanon.The good news, notes Plumbly, is that that the country has maintained thus far a fragile stability.  "That is an achievement in itself on the part of Lebanon’s political leaders and a tribute to the Lebanese people and their desire not to be drawn back after so many years of civil war into conflict," he says.

Derek Plumbly meets visits blue line area in southern Lebanon, December 2012But the truth is that the pressures are very real,” Plumbly adds. "There are pressures on the borders. There are acute pressures in the shape of the rapidly growing refugee presence. There is evidence of deliberate attempts to destabilize Lebanon. There is the inevitable tension that derives from the polarization between communities and political groups inside Lebanon, some of which support the Syrian opposition and some of which have long relationships with the Syrian government, and this can and has at times played out on the streets."
 
Lebanon's government has declared an official policy of "disassociation" from the Syrian conflict. And under an agreement brokered in 2012 known as the Baabda Declaration, the leading political blocs have adopted the same commitment not to import the crisis into Lebanon.
 
These commitments are being sorely tested on the ground. There have been many reports of arms and fighters flowing back and forth over the Lebanese border. Deadly clashes have erupted in the northern city of Tripoli, pitting Sunni and Allawite groups against one another in ways that dangerously mirror the conflict in Syria. Funerals in Lebanon of slain Hezbollah members have attested to the pro-Syrian militia’s involvement in the fighting.
 
National politics remains at an impasse, meanwhile, since the October assassination of a senior Lebanese security official prompted one of the main political blocs to withdraw from a crucial national dialogue process. Special Coordinator Plumbly called the killing of General Wissam al-Hassan, in a massive bomb blast in Beirut, "horribly reminiscent" of other political assassinations to rile Lebanon in recent years, most prominently the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 
 
On 22 March, amid growing tensions, Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned, throwing the Government into caretaker status, and raising further concerns about the stability of Lebanon.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement appealing for calm and unity and continued adherence to the disassociation policy.
 
At this writing, concerns were growing that political and sectarian tensions could undermine the preparations for parliamentary elections scheduled for June, for which the UN is providing technical support. Plumbly says the vote for the parliament, one of whose jobs it is to elect Lebanon's next President, is important for stability in Lebanon. He has been using his contacts with key political leaders to urge a credible and transparent vote within the legal timeframe.
 
A line of refugees leaving SyriaThe situation of refugees from Syria, both Syrian and Palestinian, who have sought haven in Lebanon is severely straining the country’s ability to cope. Nearly two years into a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people, some 350,000 refugees have crossed into Lebanon -- a country of only about 4 million people. 
  
Plumbly has made frequent visits to affected areas, and also lobbied donors in advance of the January conference in Kuwait which was chaired by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and which yielded pledges of $1.5 billion for humanitarian needs in and around Syria.  Without a major increase in support and rapid disbursement, he fears the sheer burden of so many refugees cannot be sustained. 
 
The crisis in Syria has also increased pressures on Lebanon's army and security forces, both to manage internal security and to control the flow of people and material across its borders, particularly with Syria. Atop previous efforts through UNSCOL to help with border management, and UNIFIL’s close relationship with the army in the south, Plumbly sees a more substantial program taking shape requiring enhanced government and international support to the armed forces, which recently floated a $1.6 billion strengthening plan.
  
With only a small civilian staff, UNSCOL's physical foot print is light in a country with some 13,000 UN personnel in all, nearly 11,000 of them UNIFIL peacekeepers. One of the keys to its effectiveness, says Plumbly, is its ability to have dialogue with the broad spectrum of actors in Lebanon – and that includes Hezbollah, which is part of the government. 
 
Derek Plumbly meets with a Lebanese farmer in southern Lebanon, December 2012The office exerts a light coordinating touch within the UN system, he says, while helping to maximize the impact of the UN’s assistance by adding the clout of a high-level UN political envoy. 
 
"There is a particular profile to the Secretary-General’s representative and coordinator, both in media terms as well as in the political contacts," Plumbly explains.  "You can put across a coordinated message that helps to demonstrate that we are one UN with a shared purpose."
 
Despite his concerns over Syria, Plumbly has been comforted that on the core issue for his mission and that of UNIFIL -- of preserving stability along the blue line with Israel -- there have been incidents but as yet no major reversals.
 
"Both Israel and Lebanon have benefitted enormously from the  arrangements resulting from Security Council Resolution 1701," says Plumbly. "The calm that has prevailed across the Blue Line contrasts with the turbulence almost everywhere else in the area but nonetheless it, too, needs to be watched very carefully and progress made on key outstanding issues if the calm is to be maintained and if there is to be any hope of transforming it into a more lasting ceasefire as the resolution envisages."
 
 
Want to know more?
 
Visit the DPA website or the homepage of the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon
 
Read the latest report by the Secretary-General