BEIRUT: Lebanon looks to be impacted by a plan to organize the return home of Syrian refugees discussed last week by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the meeting in the Finnish capital Helsinki between Trump and Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry announced Friday that it sent Washington a proposal for a joint plan on the return of refugees to where they lived before the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011.
Lebanon is expected to be involved in this return process, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s adviser for Russian Affairs George Chaaban told The Daily Star Sunday.
“There will be contacts between Lebanese and Russian officials in order to set the framework, the method, suggestions and possibilities [of the cooperation].
“During the week [after] Hariri returns [from abroad early this week], contacts with the Russian officials will begin in order to [address] these issues,” Chaaban said.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced that over 1.7 million Syrian refugees would be able to return to Syria in the near future, including a possible 890,000 from Lebanon.
Lebanon hosts close to 1 million Syrian refugees, although some Lebanese officials say the number is much higher.
The pressure for Syrian refugees to return to so-called “safe zones” has gained momentum in the past year. Lebanon’s General Security has organized border crossings for several groups, particularly from the northeastern town of Arsal.
Another group was set to leave Arsal Monday morning.
Chaaban was tasked by Hariri to communicate with the Russians over their proposal, leading to a sit-down between Chaaban and Special Representative of the Russian President for the Middle East and Africa and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov Saturday.
According to a statement from Hariri’s office, Chaaban relayed to Bogdanov Hariri’s welcoming of Moscow’s efforts that would establish “a joint plan for the return of the refugees, particularly from Lebanon and Jordan” as well as a joint working group.
“Hariri will work in a very serious manner regarding this issue,” Chaaban told The Daily Star by telephone.
During the meeting, Hariri reportedly passed on the message through his adviser that he was counting on the deal to relieve refugees of the difficult conditions they experience in Lebanon, as well as the economic consequences on Lebanon as a host country.
“In Jordan, a Jordanian-American-Russian committee was established for the refugees’ return and we in Lebanon will also contact Russian officials and try to see what the best framework is ... [to] help the refugees return,” Chaaban added.
He explained that the Russians have suggested forming a committee, though there are no further details on the nature or composition of the committee as of yet.
“The Russians are serious as a result of the agreement that took place in Helsinki between presidents Trump and Putin. The Europeans are also interested in this issue,” Chaaban said. He said Russia will play an important role in refugee returns, especially to ensure the necessary security conditions. “What I can say is that this time this project is serious and is internationally supported.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea came out in support of the move Sunday.
“This is good news and it is very important that the Lebanese state takes advantage of this opportunity for Lebanon to benefit as much as it can from the agreement,” Geagea said according to a statement published on the LF’s website Sunday.
He said that caretaker Foreign Minister and MP Gebran Bassil, who is traveling to the U.S. this week, will have an opportunity to make the case with American and Russian officials that Lebanon should be prioritized first in the return of Syrian refugees.