The war in Syria, which has displaced more than 9 million people and turned the region into a hotbed for terrorist activity, is posing an existential threat to Lebanon, the Middle Eastern nation’s top diplomat in Washington said Friday.
“The refugee numbers, the statistics, the amount of the valuable assistance doesn’t matter that much any more to us now. What really matters is that the actual Syrian refugee crisis has become an existential problem for Lebanon,” said Antoine Chedid, Lebanon’s ambassador to the U.S.
“What matters is how to stop this hemorrhage,” he said at the Brookings Institution. “To improvise new, realistic solutions to solve the Syrian refugee problem in Lebanon is the most important issue to us. We need solutions.”
The United Nations estimates that the nearly three-year-old war in Syria has displaced 6.5 million people within Syria and created 2.4 million refugees. Of these, at least 928,000 Syrians have poured across the border into Lebanon.
Mr. Chedid estimates that the actual number in his country is about 1.3 million, almost a third of the population of Lebanon, which is the size of Connecticut. That number is equivalent to having 93.5 million refugees entering the U.S. in a year.
“My talk this morning is … a shout of pain,” Mr. Chedid said.
The refugees in Lebanon do not live in camps. Instead they live in cities and towns where their presence has created a competition with the local population for food, water, and health and education services.
Mr. Chedid said the Syrian war and flood of refugees has had a deep impact on Lebanon’s economy, caused unemployment numbers to soar and created tensions between Lebanese and the Syrian refugees.
Iraq, meanwhile, is coping much better with the influx of about 220,000 Syrian refugees who have sought shelter in the northern parts of the country, said Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S.
“Our concern is not the actual dealing with the refugees, as to how long will this be? What is the day-after scenario?” he said. “You cannot have a prolonged crisis.”
The spillover from Syria’s war has destabilized the region and created an environment conducive for terrorist organizations, the two diplomats warned.
Lebanon has been hit by almost-daily bombings — a consequence of Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah’s involvement in the war on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Syrian rebel groups have used Hezbollah’s participation as an excuse to attack the Iran-backed militants and Iranian interests inside Lebanon. A twin suicide bombing outside an Iranian cultural center in Beirut this week killed 6 people and wounded more than 120.
Iraq has seen a surge in terrorism fueled by the resurgence of al Qaeda.
“The key concern we have with Syria has been on the spillover into Iraqi security,” Mr. Faily said.