BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun met with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday, the second day of his visit to Moscow, with whom he discussed the crucial role Russia can play in facilitating Syrian refugee returns from Lebanon.
“Lebanon is an old and traditional partner in the Middle East,” Putin told Aoun during the meeting, part of which was televised.
The presidents expressed their support for efforts to implement Russia's refugee return initiative, arguing that “solving this problem depends directly on creating favorable conditions in Syria, including social and economic conditions, through postconflict reconstruction,” according to a joint statement from the Lebanese and Russian presidencies.
In July, Moscow had announced a plan to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their home country from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Many Lebanese officials welcomed the proposal, which included the return of a possible 890,000 Syrian refugees from Lebanon.
However, it has remained on hold as other Lebanese political leaders have questioned Russia’s intentions in assisting with the returns, as well as the initiative’s funding and the prospects of cooperation among the international community to make it work.
Aoun and Putin also emphasized the need to “resolve [the Syrian] dispute through political and diplomatic means,” the statement said, referencing United Nations Decrees 2254 from 2015.
Other than the refugee issue, Aoun and Putin discussed the United States’ recent decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The Lebanese president reiterated to Putin his stance that "the decision contradicts international resolutions from the United Nations, and we regret that such a decision has been taken."
Aoun's visit to Russia had begun Monday. He was accompanied by a delegation that included Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
“This visit constitutes a new stage in Lebanese-Russian relations and enhances cooperation and friendship. ... The priority [of the visit] is to fix the situation in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular,” Aoun had said early Tuesday, according to a statement from the Lebanese presidency.
Before meeting with Putin, Aoun had held talks with other top Russian officials to discuss the refugee return issue and other issues concerning both countires.
Aoun and the speaker of the Russian Parliament’s lower house, Vyacheslav Volodin, spoke about the refugee returns, as well as the political situation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Aoun told Volodin that it was “in Europe’s interest to solve the refugee crisis, because the difficult economic situation in Lebanon will force [refugees] to find alternatives, and the European countries will be their first destination.”
The speaker responded to Aoun by agreeing that stability in Syria and the return of Syrian refugees was in Russia’s best interests, the presidency's statement reported.
“Lebanon and Russia have a common will in achieving this return,” he said.
Aoun had also touched on the U.S.'s Golan Heights decision with the Russian officials. On Monday U.S. President Donald Trump signed a proclamation officially recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. The move, which took place during a White House visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marked a dramatic shift from decades of U.S. policy.
Israel seized the strategic land from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war, annexing it in 1981. However, the international community never recognized the move’s legitimacy.
Aoun had said Trump’s decision marked “a black day for the world and an arbitrary decision that contradicts international legitimacy regarding state borders.”
Russian state media reported that Aoun had also said the decision directly affected Lebanese interests.
A report by Reuters had cited a Kremlin spokesman making comments to the same effect. "Such decisions undoubtedly have negative consequences from the point of view of a settlement in the Middle East and the general atmosphere of political settlement in Syria," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The third item on Aoun’s agenda Tuesday was Lebanon’s oil reserves, which he and Bassil discussed during a meeting with Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russian oil company Rosneft.
In January, then-Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil signed a contract allowing Rosneft to rehabilitate, expand and operate oil storage facilities in the northern port city of Tripoli for 20 years.
Sechin “thanked the Lebanese state for the trust that it has given the company,” according to the presidency’s statement.
“Lebanon is a strategic country for the company’s activities. We deal and coordinate with Lebanese companies with positivity, with the aim of elevating the oil facilities in north Lebanon,” Sechin told Aoun.