Lebanon News

Bassil plan to visit Syria deepens Cabinet split

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Aug. 23, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: New cracks emerged within Lebanon’s government over Syria over the weekend, after Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called for Damascus’ return to the Arab League, drawing a rebuke from Prime Minister Saad Hariri and harsh responses from parties that oppose normalizing ties with the Syrian regime. Worse still, the long-simmering split within the government over dealing with Syria took a serious twist Sunday night, when Bassil said he would visit Damascus to secure the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their country, defying opposition from Hariri’s Future Movement and its allies, the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party, all of which reject normalizing ties with the Syrian regime.

In a statement earlier in the day, Hariri distanced the Lebanese government from Bassil’s speech at an emergency Arab League meeting in Cairo in which he called for Syria’s return to the pan-Arab bloc. Syria’s membership in the Arab League has been suspended since 2011 over its crackdown on anti-regime protesters and activists demanding freedom and reforms.

Hariri also reaffirmed Lebanon’s commitment to Arab consensus regarding the 8-year-old war in Syria, and also adherence to the government’s dissociation policy toward regional conflicts.

Commenting on the reactions that followed Lebanon’s position in the Arab League meeting, the statement issued by Hariri’s media office, said: “It is important to emphasize Lebanon’s commitment to the requirements of Arab consensus regarding the Syrian crisis, most recently of which the statement issued by the last meeting in Cairo.”

Noting that the government’s policy statement did not tackle the issue of Syria’s return to the Arab League, Sunday’s statement “reaffirmed adherence to the dissociation policy and noninterference in Arab affairs.”

“The government’s stance on the recent military developments on the Turkish-Syrian border is expressed in the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry and not any other positions,” it added.

Speaking at the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers held in Cairo Saturday to address the recent unilateral Turkish offensive into northeast Syria, Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, called for Syria’s return to the Arab League. “Isn’t it time for Syria to return to the Arab League? Isn’t it time to stop the bloodbath, terrorism and the wave of displacement? Isn’t it time for inter-Arab reconciliation?” Bassil asked.The meeting was called for to address the recent unilateral Turkish operation in northeast Syria that has so far displaced 100,000 people and killed at least 100 people.

Later Sunday night, addressing FPM supporters, Bassil declared that he would visit Syria in order to help secure the return of Syrian refugees to their country. The FPM leader also threatened to “overturn the table” on opponents of President Michel Aoun if they continued to block his attempts to improve the worsening economic and financial situation in the country.

“I will visit Syria so that the Syrian people can return to Syria, the same way its army returned. I want Lebanon to breathe with its sovereignty and economy,” Bassil told an FPM rally in Hadath square, south of Beirut, marking the party’s Oct. 13, 1990, anniversary.

Referring to the creation of Israel in 1948, Bassil said: “Before Palestine’s Nakba [catastrophe], Lebanon had two lungs. Now, it has one lung, Syria is Lebanon’s economic lung. We have lost the first lung because of Israel. Shall we lose the second lung due to the madness of hatred or madness of wrong and futile bettings?”

Addressing Aoun in remarks that carried a veiled threat to the president’s opponents who had criticized the presidency’s performance three years after his election, Bassil said: “After the passing of half of the [six-year] presidential term, time is passing and we call on you [Aoun] not to wait for long. On the day you feel that you can no longer endure [the situation], we call on you to bang the table and we are ready to overturn the table.”

Bassil accused Aoun’s opponents of spreading “rumors and lies” with the aim of undermining his presidency. He said FPM supporters were ready to go again to the “people’s palace” in Baabda, in a repeat of popular rallies when Aoun was bunkered at the palace in 1990 after strongly opposing the Arab-sponsored Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War.

Every year, the FPM, founded by Aoun, commemorates fateful events on Oct. 13, 1990, when the Syrian army bombarded Baabda Palace, forcing Aoun, who was Army commander at the time, to take refuge at the French Embassy before he went into self-exile to France in 1991. Syrian troops stormed the palace during a battle with Lebanese Army units loyal to Aoun.

Aoun spent 14 years in self-exile in France before returning to Lebanon after Syria withdrew its military forces from the country in April 2005.

Lebanon, which is hosting over 1 million Syrian refugees, straining the country’s frail infrastructure and struggling economy, has long complained of insufficient promised international aid.

The split over Syria erupted during a Cabinet session last Thursday when Bassil proposed sending some ministers to Damascus to talk about reducing shipping fees to Lebanese trucks following last month’s reopening by Iraq and Syria of Albukamal border crossing on a vital highway linking the capitals of Iraq and Syria, a political source said.

Bassil’s proposal, which was backed by Youth and Sports Minister Mohammad Fneish, one of three Hezbollah ministers, was rejected by ministers of the Future Movement, the LF and the PSP. The FPM, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement support direct talks with the Syrian government to coordinate the refugees’ return.

Bassil’s conciliatory gesture toward Syria came after he held a seven-hour meeting with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah Thursday night.

While Bassil’s speech in Cairo was criticized by his political opponents, it won praise from Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem.

Describing Bassil’s call for returning Syria to the Arab League, as a “courageous stance,” Qassem said in a statement: “It’s time for Syria to return [to the Arab League] honored and thanked because it had stood fast with its leadership, army and people in the face of the most dangerous conspiracy to destroy Syria as a prelude to empowering Israel in the region.”

Meanwhile, the Cabinet is set to meet Monday at the Grand Serail to resume its discussions on the 2020 budget. Hariri, who is set to chair the session, Sunday assured the Lebanese that proposed economic reforms that would accompany the budget would relieve the country.

“Inshallah, the budget will be approved and will be followed by a series of reforms and decisions that will relieve the country,” Hariri told reporters after voting in the election of the Higher Islamic Council at Dar al-Fatwa in Beirut.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2019, on page 1.

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