Kerry calls for end to stalemate in Lebanon

Announcing a new aid package for Syrian refugees, America's top diplomat calls for an end to the "deeply troubling" political stalemate afflicting the country.

US secretary of state John Kerry gestures after delivering a news conference following a meeting with Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam at the government palace in Beirut on Wednesday. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
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BEIRUT // The US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday called for an end to the political stalemate in Lebanon.

The deadlock was “deeply troubling”, especially with the chaos in Syria that has brought an influx of refugees, and Lebanon needed “a government that is free of foreign influence with a fully empowered president”, Mr Kerry said.

He also announced US$290 million, more than Dh1bn, in new US aid for United Nations agencies working on the Syrian refugee crisis throughout the region.

The secretary of state was in Beirut to show support for the government and urge officials to deal with the political crisis that has left the country without a president since Michel Suleiman’s six-year term ended last month.

Politicians have failed to agree on a successor despite five parliament sessions over several weeks, boycotted by Hizbollah allies.

Lebanon is accustomed to political crisis. It went for months without a president before Mr Suleiman, a former army commander, was elected in 2008.

Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite.

“The current political stalemate here in Lebanon is deeply troubling. It is unfortunate the parliament did not elect a president on schedule, and now it is far more important for the vacancy to be filled,” Mr Kerry said.

He said the US would continue to support Lebanon, including its armed forces, but also urged a speedy resolution to the impasse.

“We need a government that is free of foreign influence with a fully empowered president and with the president and parliament responding to the needs of the Lebanese people. This is not a time for business as usual.”

In announcing the new aid for the Syrian refugees, Mr Kerry called for countries and groups supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime to take action to end a civil war that has cost more than 160,000 lives.

“All of us, all nations have a responsibility to try to end this conflict, and I particularly call on those nations directly supporting the Assad regime in what has become a grotesque display of modern warfare against its own people,” Mr Kerry said.

He singled out Iran, Russia and Hizbollah. “I call on … Iran, Russia, and I call on Hizbollah, based right here in Lebanon, to engage in a legitimate effort to bring this war to an end.”

Mr Kerry criticised Syria’s presidential election as “a great big zero”, and said it could not be considered fair “because you can’t have an election where millions of your people don’t even have an ability to vote”.

Lebanon, home to 4.5 million people, is struggling to cope with the presence of more than a million Syrian and Palestinian refugees in desperate need of housing, education and medical care.

The Lebanese are deeply split over the war in Syria and have lined up behind opposing sides. The deep divisions are among the reasons for the lack of agreement on a consensus candidate for president.

Consensus has been nearly impossible. Hizbollah has been fighting alongside Mr Al Assad’s forces, while most Lebanese Sunnis broadly support the armed uprising against him.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse