Lebanon News

Geagea: Time for refugees to return

Geagea speaks during a media round table in LF headquarters in Maarab. (The Daily Star/Aldo Ayoub, HO)

MAARAB, Lebanon: Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea Thursday said that just like the Lebanese state made the decision to accept Syrian refugees with open arms, the time has come for them to return to their homeland. “Problems are increasing between Syrian refugees and Lebanese residents and these small issues could become bigger problems,” Geagea said, speaking at a roundtable discussion with journalists at the LF headquarters.

On the domestic scene, Geagea said the nation could not turn a blind eye to everyday issues. “When a certain school has 300 Lebanese students and 700 Syrian students, the Lebanese student will naturally feel out of place,” he added.

“After six to seven years living somewhere, you begin to feel like you’re at home,” Geagea said, adding that there were around 150,000 to 200,000 more cars on the road in addition to the $300 million the Lebanese government has spent on providing electricity to the refugees.

However, he added “we will not throw anyone out especially because, as Lebanese, we are the first to welcome guests, but we cannot take it anymore.”

Geagea said the LF would send a proposal to Cabinet in the next 10 to 20 days to provide solutions and ways of moving forward, the draft was also sent to allied political blocs for recommendations.

Geagea said the time was right for their return, despite recent comments by United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag to the contrary. He also said that military operations would stop in Syria within the next two to three months.

“With Daesh (ISIS) and the extremist groups being defeated, they only have refugees to hide behind, which is another reason the refugee crisis is a danger to Lebanon.”

Responding to Kaag’s recent comments that the time was not right for Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, Geagea said “each person is free to have their own opinion, but this is [the government’s] decision, and not theirs.”

Continuing, he said “we, as Lebanese, need to become used to making our own decisions and not be ashamed to say this is our land and this is a matter of state sovereignty.”

He added that there are more than one area within Syria deemed to be safe zones. “The two areas, one in the north where the Turkish troops are and one in the Damascus countryside are four to five times the size of Lebanon,” he said.

When asked how the return of the refugees would be coordinated or determined, Geagea said in coordination with the U.N. and the relevant organizations, “not the regime of Bashar Assad.”

“We don’t want or need anyone’s approval or permission, we just want logistical help in facilitating the process in a peaceful way for the refugees to return to their homeland – this could be to their original homes or an area further away, temporarily,” he added.

Despite the desire for refugees to return, Geagea said that coordinating with the regime of Bashar Assad would only harm the process and any attempts to politicize it must be completely rejected.

“Why would we negotiate with the man responsible for the fleeing of 70 to 80 percent of these refugees, the man who used chemical weapons against them and let’s not forget the 30 years of Syrian occupation in Lebanon,” he asked.

The LF head admitted that contacts between Lebanese and Syrian security apparatuses were, and still are, ongoing. “This is normal due to the terrorist threats both countries are facing, but to force Lebanon to re-establish political dialogue with Syria using the refugees as an excuse is unacceptable,” he said.

Despite Lebanon’s history of welcoming refugees, Geagea said the difference between the Palestinian refugees and the Syrian refugees was that the Palestinians did not have any place to go back to.

Other topics Geagea touched on were the widely discussed parliamentary by-elections to fill vacant MP seats in Tripoli and Kesrouan, as well as potential alliances for next year’s general parliamentary elections.

The Free Patriotic Movement will likely endorse President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, retired Brig. Gen. Chamel Roukoz, for the Kesrouan seat vacated by Aoun himself. When asked if the LF would endorse Roukoz, Geagea said the party would decide once a date was set for the by-elections. Geagea did not comment on the two vacant seats in Tripoli.

Geagea said an electoral alliance with Hezbollah was far-fetched, despite taking a softer than usual tone against the group. “We cannot say that everything that happens is Hezbollah’s fault because when something really is their fault no one will believe us,” he said.

He added that “the reason Lebanon was able to maintain relative stability throughout the recent regional turmoil was the will of major political parties – LF, Future Movement, FPM and yes, Hezbollah and even Amal.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 14, 2017, on page 3.

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