February 25, 2014

In Middle East Subcommittee Hearing, Kaine Calls Lebanon “Overlooked Neighbor” In Syrian Crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, chaired a hearing on recent political and security developments in Lebanon. With more than one million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, the hearing focused on the impact of the Syrian civil war, as well as what more the international community can do to provide assistance.

“Lebanon is at a crossroads,” said Kaine. “The Syrian conflict has devastated Syria…but I think, at least in the American press and the telling of the story about Syrian effects, Lebanon is often an overlooked neighbor. … Lebanon has been extremely generous in welcoming Syrian refugees into the country as has been its tradition, and it’s paid the highest price in terms of the stability and security of the country. Lebanon deserves our attention and the continued investment and partnership, and if we do it the right way, it will be good for the country and for regional and global security.”

During a visit to Lebanon last week, Kaine and Senator Angus King were the first Members of Congress to meet with leaders of the newly formed government. Recounting his meetings with Prime Minister Salam, President Suleiman and others, Kaine expressed hope that the formation of the Lebanese government and upcoming Presidential elections will “help in administering some of the challenges” that have resulted from the influx of Syrian refugees but cautioned that much work remains for international partners, including the U.S., to help Lebanon remain stable.

Kaine also discussed the latest developments regarding Syria, including the United Nations Security Council Resolution approved last weekend.

“We’re not happy with the path, the situation that Syria is taking – not by a long shot,” Kaine continued. “Weeks ago I called for a resolution, after meeting with victims of the civil war in Syria who exited through Lebanon, to try to provide a more aggressive insertion of humanitarian aid into Syria. … The U.N. last week adopted a resolution finally overcoming Russia’s propensity to veto … but frankly whether it was a breakthrough or not will be determined by whether humanitarian aid starts to be delivered in a more significant way.”

In closing, Kaine reiterated that in order to be a good partner and ally in Lebanon, the international community must  continue the delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria, the provision of humanitarian aid for refugees who have exited Syria, as well as support diplomatic efforts to try to find a path towards a political resolution or a ceasefire in the civil war. 

The subcommittee heard from witnesses including Mr. Lawrence Silverman, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Major General Michael T. Plehn, Principal Director for Middle East Policy; Office of the Secretary of Defense; Dr. Paul Salem, Vice President, Middle East Institute; and Mr. Aram Nerguizian, Senior Fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Full transcript of Sen. Kaine’s opening statement:

The topic of the hearing today is, “Lebanon at the Crossroads.” I just returned from a trip in Lebanon last week with Senator Angus King of Maine, and we went together because we serve together on Armed Services and Budget Committees, but we also serve separately – I’m on the Foreign Relations committee, and Senator King’s on the Intelligence Committee. We took a trip where we spent time in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, and in some ways, I think we were probably most excited about the trip to Lebanon because neither of us had been to Lebanon. We have strong feelings about the situation there, but we felt like we needed to ground those feelings and thoughts with some reality check. On the basis of that trip I do feel very strongly that the title of this hearing is apt – Lebanon is at a crossroads.

The Syrian conflict about which we have spent so much time in Foreign Relations and Armed Services has devastated Syria, many of its neighbors, but I think at least in the American press and the telling of the story about Syrian effects, Lebanon is often an overlooked neighbor with respect to stories about the Syrian crisis. Lebanon has been extremely generous in welcoming Syrian refugees into the country as has been its tradition, and it’s paid the highest price in terms of the stability and security of the country. Lebanon deserves our attention and the continued investment and partnership, and if we do that, and if we do it the right way it will be good for the country and for regional and global security.

In July of 2013, Senator King and I, in separate Congressional trips visited Turkey and Jordan and when we were in Turkey and Jordan, we saw, experienced and visited refugee camps and talked with leaders about the strain of the Syrian refugees on the U.S. partners, but it was important that we go back to Lebanon to have those same discussions. And what we saw was challenging. The population of Lebanon is a little bit over 4 million and there are nearly a million, by many accounts, more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. From Syria, no top of refugees from Palestine who have been there for many decades.

The notion in kind of wrapping your head around the notion of a refugee population that’s come in the last couple years is equivalent to 25% of the country is pretty dramatic. Imagine 80 million war refugees coming to the United States over a period of about two years – that would be about twenty five percent of our population. You can imagine how many challenges that would pose. That size of refugee population obviously imposes many, many significant difficulties for Lebanon civil society.

Senator King and I set up this CODEL to visit Lebanon a couple months ago but through the fortuity of the timing, right before we arrived in the country, the government of Lebanon was able to format the many months of gridlock. Many of you know who follow Lebanon, the challenge of forming a government among competing factions with cabinet ministries in a sufficient ratio to receive parliamentary approval is very, very difficult. We had a chance to be the first CODEL to meet with Prime Minister Salam and President Suleiman after the formation of this government. We offered congratulations on the formation of the government and we discussed with each of them the relatively prompt path for presidential elections, and we need to keep that path on time and the need for a balanced and strong and ministerial statement, that statement of government that is done within thirty days of the formation of government, sort of establishes key priorities for this government and this phase.

We think the formation of the government with presidential elections in Lebanon, and the president is selected by Parliament by a two thirds vote – the carrying out of parliamentary elections to follow should provide assistance, and should help in administering some of the challenges that result from Syrian refugees but that will not at all be sufficient. There must be much more work done by international partners including the U.S. to carry out the stability in Lebanon.

During our time there we met not only with elected officials, we also met many NGOs administering aid to Syrian refugees. We met with members of Parliament and cabinet ministers in the newly formed government. We met with the UNHCR administrator to talk about refugee issues, and what we found bluntly was again and again, even if we would ask questions about Lebanese internal issues, within a very short time the answer would end up being about Syria and about the Syrian challenge, not only the refugees coming into the country but how the decision of the Hezbollah organization to participate so actively and visibly in the Syrian civil war has increased violence, largely Sunni and Shi’ite violence within the country of Lebanon.

It was a challenging trip – one morning we were leaving the American embassy to go have a meeting with President Suleiman and a bomb went off in downtown Beirut near where we were. You could hear it, you could see the smoke – this was an everyday event to many, sadly. We assumed that our meeting with President Suleiman would be cancelled. If it were here, a bomb going off, two motorcycles exploding nearby, killing many, and injuring many, many more in a part of downtown near where we’re meeting, the President would say, “I’ve got my hands full, I don’t want to have a meeting.” But President Suleiman basically wanted us to see the kind of challenge that he was dealing with and so the meeting continued and in the midst of the meeting, the President was being interrupted with phone calls to try to talk with the Iranian ambassador, this particular bombing was near an Iranian cultural center and to talk to others, and it was a little bit heartbreaking to see the normality of the situation. And to feel as visitors we were just there for a brief time but the challenge that must pose for the everyday life of those who might get caught in the crossfire and the violence that occurs in random ways in random neighborhoods.

On the question of Syria I think we all agree that U.S. diplomatic energies notwithstanding, we’re not happy with the path, the situation that Syria is taking – not by a long shot. The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees outside of the country including in Lebanon, aid that we give through the U.N. and distributed through worthy NGOs. We’re the largest provider of humanitarian aid, we’re deeply engaged in negotiations around the eventual destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria, we’re deeply engaged with efforts at the UN Security Council or in Geneva to find a path forward, but while we’re deeply engaged we’re not happy with the process of the progress. And so that continues to pose challenges that could be of longstanding nature for Lebanon.

Weeks ago I called for a resolution, after meeting with victims of civil war in Syria who exited through Lebanon, to try to provide a more aggressive insertion of humanitarian aid into Syria, not just the provision of aid to Syrian refugees outside the country but the focus on inside Syria. The UN last week adopted a resolution finally overcoming Russia’s propensity to veto – with the support of China - even humanitarian aid resolutions. Last week there was a little bit of a breakthrough on that, but frankly whether it was a breakthrough or not, it will only be determined by whether humanitarian aid starts to be delivered in a more significant way. But if we’re to try to tackle the challenges and be a good partner and ally in Lebanon, we need to continue that – the delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria, the provision of humanitarian aid for refugees who have exited Syria – and continue efforts diplomatically to try to find a path towards resolution or a ceasefire in the civil war.

During our visit to Lebanon we had an opportunity to visit with Lebanese armed forces and explore the ways in which the United States is working in tandem with the armed forces. We found a high degree of satisfaction with the relationship within the armed forces. Many of the armed forces leaders we met, and the Lebanese armed forces had either done training either in the U.S. or with U.S. military leaders. And I would say throughout the region probably in Lebanon the degree of satisfaction in the military relationship is probably the highest. Now that military, that armed forces, has a significant challenge because in some critical areas, the armed forces are weaker than the Hezbollah militia. That’s an unusual situation to contemplate from an American standpoint where it would not be imaginable where the militia in the U.S. would be more powerful than the armed forces. It’s kind of a challenges concept that you have about the strength of the armed forces but every day in numerous ways the American military leadership is working with the Lebanese armed forces to increase capacity whether it’s technology or training and we found a high degree of satisfaction and appreciation for those relationships. We want to make sure we continue those because it’s not just the Syrians but it’s Al Qaeda and other extremist groups that we worry about, and they must not be able to establish a base of operations in Lebanon.

We want to ensure the U.S. policy and support for Lebanon remain strong, and the plight of Lebanon is an untold story of the Syrian war. Finally before I introduce our first panel and we ask them to make opening statements and have a bit of a dialogue, the other reason to have this is our Lebanese-American population is such a strong part of America. One of the reasons you do hearings like this is not only to cast a spotlight on a part of the world where the story has not been told but also to honor Americans whose tradition and heritage is such that they have strong connections and lobby them. And Lebanese-Americans are often not removed from Lebanon, they’re deeply engaged with Lebanon. We find that in Virginia and so many communities throughout the United States. The Lebanese-American contributions in our society whether it’s the foundation of St. Jude’s hospital which is a spectacular story or in so many other areas, it’s something that’s really notable and when we have significant chunks of our population that care so deeply, that in and of itself is reason for the U.S. to be focused as well.

So both because of the critical role of the Middle East but also because of this strong Lebanese-American population in this country that we decided to hold this hearing and focus on ways where the United States can continue to be partnered but find strategies and ways to be better partners. 

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