BEIRUT: Lebanese officials Thursday welcomed Russia’s proposal for the return of Syrian refugees, pledging to form a committee to oversee the return with General Security playing a key role, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. Lebanon took its position during talks between high-level Lebanese and Russian delegations at Baabda Palace, which included the Russian president’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin.
President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, along with caretaker Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun, General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and others, were briefed on the Russian proposal.
“The Russian delegation presented its suggestions, and the Lebanese did so as well, and [it was agreed that] a security and logistic Lebanese-Russian committee will be formed for the return process,” the source told The Daily Star.
The source said that Lebanese officials will now deliberate on the makeup and mandate of the committee. “The main component of the committee will be Ibrahim, but it is yet to be seen who will join as well.”
Thursday’s sit-down took place after the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had sent Washington a proposal for a joint plan to return refugees to where they lived before the Syrian crisis broke out, in 2011. The proposal followed a meeting in Helsinki between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“I assert that there is a unified Lebanese position” toward the Russian initiative, Berri told visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence Thursday evening. “And all talks about divisions are unfounded, and hopefully this case concludes satisfactorily.”
Aoun informed Lavrentiev that Lebanon welcomed the Russian proposal because it aligned with the country’s call for a safe return of Syrian refugees, according to a statement from the president’s office. “Aoun expressed Lebanon’s readiness to provide the necessary help to implement the Russian suggestions for the return of the displaced Syrians, be it through the committee that will be formed for this purpose or through [whatever] mechanism will be adopted,” the statement quoted Aoun as saying.
Following the meeting, Aoun, Berri and Hariri met to assess the Russian initiative. Before going to Baabda, the Russian delegation sat down with Hariri at his Downtown residence to discuss the proposal.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Lavrentiev said the delegation had “held really very positive, constructive discussions.” He added that there was an agreement on maintaining cooperation with the Lebanese side.
“We think that the situation is calming down in Syria. The war on terror ... [and the] war on Daesh [ISIS] is almost over. Of course there are still a lot of [sleeper] cells, but it is just a matter of time to dealing with them and eradicating them from the Syrian soil,” he said.
Lavrentiev, who met with Syrian President Bashar Assad Wednesday, said that the Syrian government had expressed its support for the Russian initiative and as willing to help in the return process.
“It is necessary to [prepare] the conditions for them to return, and I should say that the Syrian government ... [is] really willing to accept all those who want to come back to their homes and to create all the kinds of favorable conditions for them to return to normal life,” Lavrentiev noted.
He explained that the international community has an important role to play in this regard. “Without international help, it would still be very difficult to create favorable conditions for the people who really want to return [but] who don’t know what to do and how to survive after coming back.”
Lavrentiev said that he had relayed to the three top leaders the “positive signals” from the field in Syria and that many refugees are returning to their homes daily. He said that should be considered a “good sign” for the refugees still in Lebanon and Jordan.
“People understand that there is no threat from the government or from the governmental security authorities. They are returning to their homes, to the territories that are now under the control of the government,” he added.
The source said that the Russian initiative focuses on the number of refugees set to return, the areas they will return to and reconstruction in Syria.
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. A representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry announced this week that 30,000 Syrians who had fought in Syria wanted to stay in Lebanon.
The delegation left for Turkey in the evening, and the source said that it was likely that the Russians would visit Lebanon again to discuss this matter.
“The Russian delegation was in Jordan, Syria [and today] in Lebanon, and it will head to Ankara,” the source said. “After they survey the opinions of all these countries, they will then present another plan, whereby the time [they come back] these countries would’ve specified who will be part of the committee” that will be formed.