BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Lebanon’s politicians on Wednesday to overcome their “deeply troubling” stalemate and elect a new president to help respond to the damaging fallout of civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Kerry, on a brief visit to Beirut, also announced more aid to help Lebanon and other countries in the region struggling to cope with millions of Syrian refugees.
“Lebanon’s security for years has been of paramount concern to the United States, and that is why I have to say that the current political stalemate here in Lebanon is deeply troubling,” he said after meeting Prime Minister Tammam Salam.
Lebanon has been without a president since May 25, when Michel Suleiman’s six-year term expired. Attempts by politicians to pick a successor have foundered on longstanding divisions exacerbated by tensions over the Syrian war.
Political rifts have been accompanied by sectarian violence including bombs, gunbattles and rocket fire. Salam’s government also faces widening budget deficits and a growing strain on services such as electricity, water, health and education from more than 1 million Syrian refugees in a country of 4 million.
“Lebanon needs and Lebanon deserves to have a fully empowered, fully functioning, complete government. We hope the Lebanese parliament will select a president quickly,” Kerry said.
The presidency, allocated to the Maronite Christian community under Lebanon’s sectarian division of power, is one of the three main political offices alongside the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker, a Shi‘ite Muslim.
The war in Syria has split Lebanon’s Christians just as it has divided Muslims. Shi‘ite Hezbollah - a powerful militant group and political force in Lebanon - has sent fighters to reinforce Assad, a fellow ally of Shi‘ite Iran, while some Lebanese Sunnis have joined Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels.
Kerry announced more than $290 million in additional aid for U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations working with the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
Some $51 million of the funds, the largest chunk of the aid, will go to helping Lebanon which hosts the highest concentration of refugees as a percentage of population in the world.
Unlike some of Syria’s other neighbours, Lebanon does not have formal refugee camps, leaving many families to find refuge within host communities. More than $35 million of the additional funds will go to helping refugees in Jordan, $15 million to Turkey and the same amount to Iraq, while $4.5 million will support Egypt, the State Department said.
The power of the presidency, once the leading political office in Lebanon, was eroded under the accord which ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, handing greater influence to the government and prime minister.
A State Department official had said earlier that Kerry would renew a commitment by the United States to develop the capabilities of the Lebanese army to secure its borders and restore calm in parts of the country.
Lebanon has only two neighbours: Israel, with which it remains formally in a state of war, and Syria, where the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels is now in its fourth year.
Kerry visited Lebanon a day after Syria held a presidential election widely expected to deliver a sweeping victory for Assad and a third seven-year term in office. Syrian officials have already described the predicted victory as vindication of Assad’s three-year campaign against those fighting to oust him.
“With respect to the elections that took place, the so-called elections, the elections are non-elections, the elections are a great big zero,” Kerry said.
“They are meaningless, and they are meaningless because you can’t have an election where millions of your people don’t even have the ability to vote, where they don’t have the ability to contest the election, and they have no choice.”
Tuesday’s vote took place in government-controlled areas of Syria. For the first time in 50 years, Syrians were offered a choice of candidates, but Assad’s two rivals were relative unknowns who posed little challenge to him.
Editing by Mark Heinrich