Syria and Lebanon

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 7th March 2012.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton 4:30 pm, 7th March 2012

In January I joined a parliamentary delegation to Lebanon, organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which included my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd and Richard Graham. We set out to examine the effect of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, to meet with Syrians, including opposition representatives and refugees, in particular in the border areas, and to speak with Lebanese politicians about their perspective on the crisis.

Lebanon and Syria are two countries whose geography was once one, whose history is shared, whose ethnic and sectarian make-up is similar and whose economies are intertwined. Lebanon’s sole functioning land border is with Syria, from where it gets many of its food imports, while Syria depends on Lebanon for banking and financial services. Lebanon is possibly the most affected of the neighbouring countries by the crisis inside Syria and is an example of why that crisis, in contrast to the Libya situation perhaps, is so dangerous to the border region.

The impact of the crisis is felt in many ways, at security, political, economic, confessional and ethnic levels, each of which I shall touch on briefly. On security, Syria presents a serious risk to Lebanon. I will come on to refugees later, but their numbers, which are increasing at present, will undoubtedly affect the sectarian and political balance in Lebanon. Even before the crisis, an estimated 300,000 Syrian workers were in Lebanon, all with families inside Syria. Many Syrian opposition activists, some of whom we met, are active from within Lebanon. Many told us that it was and is unsafe for them in Beirut, where they feel monitored by supporters of the Syrian regime.

We visited Tripoli, and sectarian clashes were clearly a possibility, especially along the fault line between the Sunni and Alawi areas—sadly, subsequently, three deaths resulted in February. The security situation has not been helped by Syrian interference in Lebanon; there has been a series of kidnappings in the Bekaa valley in recent weeks, as a result of the security vacuum in the border area, some apparently for money but others clearly political. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Bellingham, what representations the British Government have made to the Lebanese Government about their responsibilities towards Syrians living in Lebanon. In Lebanon, we heard many unsubstantiated accusations of al-Qaeda activity in the Bekaa valley, but many Lebanese to whom we spoke were dubious. Has the Minister received reports of such activity, and what is his assessment of what is happening in the Bekaa valley?

Politically, Lebanese politics is polarised into two groups, those who support Assad and those who do not, referred to as the coalitions of 8 March and of 14 March. Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon and remains supportive of Assad. Critical questions that everyone was asking when we were in

Lebanon were about how strong that support is and what Hezbollah’s position would be as and when the crisis in Syria deepens. I ask the Minister whether the Government will sanction discussions with the 8 March parliamentary bloc about the Syria crisis. It is important for us to persuade that group of the advantages to Lebanon of not becoming directly involved in the internal affairs of its neighbour.