As Syria Burns, Arab Leaders at U.N. Still Point to Israel As Region’s Core Problem

By Patrick Goodenough | September 25, 2013 | 4:33 AM EDT

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

( – Lebanon’s stability is being seriously compromised by the conflict in Syria and the ongoing actions of Hezbollah, but in a 16-minute speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, the country’s president managed to avoid criticizing either the Assad regime or the Shi’ite terrorist group that is supporting it.

President Michel Sleiman did, however, condemn Israel’s “occupation and oppressive practices,” along with what he called its “killing, abuse, division and destruction,” and its “daily violations against the Lebanese sovereignty.”

He described the Israeli-Arab dispute as “for the main challenge” and the Palestinian issue as “the heart” of the “Middle East problem.”

Lebanon officially pursues what it calls a policy of “dissociation” from the conflict in Syria, but the attempt to insulate the small country from the turmoil in its much bigger neighbor has failed dismally, with Hezbollah’s military intervention to bolster the Assad regime inviting reprisal violence inside Lebanon from Sunni extremists supportive of the anti-Assad rebellion.

Even more critically, Lebanon has been flooded with Syrians trying to escape the violence. According to updated U.N. figures more than 656,000 Syrians are now registered as refugees in Lebanon – significantly more than in the other main refugee-receiving countries, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Smaller than Connecticut and with a total population of just four million, Lebanon is struggling to cope with this huge influx, which Sleiman in his speech said was “way beyond Lebanon’s capacity of assimilation” and had begun to take on “an existential dimension.”

Yet while he appealed for more international assistance, Sleiman steered clear of criticizing Syrian President Bashar Assad for the bloody two-and-a-half year conflict that has triggered the refugee flow. He merely noted that Lebanon had condemned the use of chemicals weapons” – without saying who was responsible – and said the U.N. Security Council should hold the perpetrators accountable.

Two other Arab leaders spoke during Tuesday’s General Assembly session and both also underlined the Arab preoccupation with Israel, even in the midst of the Syria civil war and its destabilizing spillover effects.

Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said the Arab-Israeli conflict was “at the forefront of the issues threatening international peace and security,” while Jordan’s King Abdullah described the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians as “the region’s core crisis” – and one that “feeds the flames of  extremism around the world.”

Jordan, with a total population of 6.4 million, is struggling to cope with more than 525,000 U.N.-registered Syrian refugees. Like Lebanon, Jordan has characterized the refugee problem as a potentially existential threat, placing a huge burden on infrastructure and commodities like food and water.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow