Antonio Guterres, UN Refugee Chief: Syrian Crisis Spillover Into Lebanon Would Be 'Existential Threat'

03/22/2013 04:33 pm ET | Updated Mar 22, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The worst possible fallout from the ongoing crisis in Syria would be for the crisis to reach into the neighboring country of Lebanon, the United Nation's top humanitarian official said in a timely interview on Thursday.

The comments by Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, came just a day before Lebanon saw its prime minister resign amid sectarian squabbling, and during a week when clashes between Sunni and Shia communities in a northern city has already claimed several lives.

"Lebanon needs massive support," Guterres at the interview in Washington, where he was meeting with lawmakers to encourage them to release more funds for the humanitarian mission. "The worst thing that could happen would be spillover into that country."

The number of refugees who have poured out of Syria in the past two years and into its neighboring countries -- Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon -- passed the 1 million mark in early March, according a tally by UNHCR. That figure could be as much as 50% higher, Guterres said, if you count those who have not formally registered, and there could be as many as three million more displaced from their homes inside Syria.

The presence of so many refugees in the neighboring countries has already created tremendous strain on the economy and social structure of all three nations, and there have already been hints of skirmishes and unrest in Iraq and Jordan -- where there are now half a million Syrians alone.

During a press conference Friday in Amman with President Barack Obama, Jordan's King Abdullah II noted that the number of refugees in the country's Zataari camp alone is enough to effectively make it Jordan's fifth-largest city. At the same event, Obama pledged an additional $200 million in support to Jordan to help mitigate the crisis.

But none of those places face quite the litany of dangers as Lebanon, Guterres said, where governmental uncertainty compounds the growing signs of sectarian fighting linked to the Syrian battle in the north, including in Tripoli and along northeastern border areas.

"For Lebanon, the Syrian crisis has become an existential threat," Guterres said. "Lebanon is a very fragile cultural system, with a complex social structure with different confessions, and it's had an increase of more than 10% of its population."

At the current rate of exodus, Guterres said, the number of Syrian refugees is expected to triple by the end of the year, which might mean as many as 1 million Syrians hunkered down in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon each. The possibility of a spike in instability and strife would only go up, he said.

In congressional testimony earlier this week, Guterres minced no words in expressing his concern about the humanitarian disaster unfolding around the Syrian conflict -- but his remarks Thursday pointed to an even graver threat of a spiralling regional conflict if the situation is not calmed soon.

"We could have an explosion in the Middle East, and that would have an impact that those in the region would not be able to handle -- both from a humanitarian point of view but a security perspective too," Guterres said. "The world needs to wake up. This is not just a regional crisis. This is a situation that presents a major threat to not only regional peace and security, but global peace and security.

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