BEIRUT: Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’s plan to visit Syria to secure the return of refugees has unsettled an already fragile government that is battling to stay afloat, with opposing views on the matter bound for a collision course.
“If the Foreign Minister wants to visit Syria to discuss the return of refugees then that’s his business but what’s important is the result,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Monday, before warning against a possible Syrian infiltration into Lebanon as a result of the visit.
“We do not trust Syria’s intentions when it comes to the issue of refugees and the visit should not serve as an excuse for the return of Syria to Lebanon,” the statement read.
Syria enjoyed hegemony over Lebanon following the conclusion of the bloody civil war in 1989, with the small Mediterranean country remaining under its de facto rule until 2005 when then anti-Syrian Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and father of the current premier was assassinated.
His supporters accused Syria of orchestrating the killing with the last Syrian troops leaving Lebanon after 29 years under immense pressure from massive popular demonstrations, opposition parties, and the international community.
“As a reminder, the blood of Rafik Hariri drove the Syrian army back to Syria,” Hariri said, echoing once again that “the main concern at the moment is to solve the economic crisis.”
Over the weekend and on two separate occasions, Bassil called for the reinstatement of Syria to the Arab League before announcing a visit to the war-torn country. Syria’s membership has been suspended since 2011 in the wake of its crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
“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?” he asked at the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to address Turkey’s offensive into northeast Syria.
The onslaught, aimed at dispelling the Kurd’s grip in that part of the country, has drawn the ire of the international community with more than 130,000 Syrians having fled since the operation began five days ago, according to the United Nations. Syria’s government has also allied itself with the Kurds and the army has deployed near the Turkish border on Monday to help fend off the invasion.
On Sunday, Bassil doubled down on his comments, declaring that a visit to Syria is in the works because he wants “Lebanon to breathe with its sovereignty and economy.”
He also labeled Syria as one of Lebanon’s last remaining “lungs.”
“We already lost one of our lungs as a result of the Nakba catastrophe,” Bassil said, in reference to the creation of Israel in 1948, urging Lebanon to preserve its last economic avenue.
“Shall we lose the second lung due to hatred or futile sweepstakes?” Bassil asked FPM supporters gathered Sunday outside the FPM’s headquarters in Hadath to mark the party’s Oct. 13, 1990, anniversary.
Hezbollah, a strong supporter of the Syrian regime and an ally of the FPM welcomed the comments, with its deputy leader Naim Qassem describing Bassil’s call for Syria’s reinstatement as a “courageous stance.”
Bassil’s announcement came days after he held a seven-hour Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s financial struggles continue to make rounds, with officials slow to implement reforms as its budget deficit hovers near the 11 percent of GDP mark.
The government debt is equivalent to 151 percent of GDP with some $1.5 billion due to be repaid to creditors next month. To further undermine confidence, credit agencies from across the board have downgraded Lebanon’s rating, warning of a potential collapse if liquidity isn’t secured.
Bassil’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from his opponents, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces.
Both parties have opposed normalizing ties with the Syrian regime, with Hariri maintaining that “Lebanon is committed to the Arab consensus regarding the Syrian crisis.”
In a statement issued following Bassil’s comments in Cairo, Hariri distanced himself from the Foreign Minister’s position, saying that his comments reflect his views only.
MP Rola Tabsh of Hariri’s FM said Bassil’s remarks “do not serve Lebanon’s interest,” while Education Minister Akram Shehayyeb accused the FPM leader of cozying up to the Syrian regime.
Hariri also expressed hope in passing the 2020 budget in the coming days, as ministers meet Monday to discuss the widely anticipated plan. The budget is viewed by the many as the last resort for officials to convince the international community of its commitment to implement drastic reforms tackling a plethora of issues, including its highly expensive electricity sector.
Doing so would unlock parts of the $11 billion dollar soft loan package agreed in Paris last year to kickstart Lebanon’s economy and revamp its ailing infrastructure.
In recent weeks, concerns over the supply of US dollars growing scarce have grown, with banks exhibiting increased conservative tendencies by limiting cash withdrawals and other restrictions toward businesses seeking the much-coveted currency.
Wheat importers, like gas station proprietors, have been forced in some instances to hit money exchange houses, which have exploited the current state of affairs to charge rates well above the official peg of 1,507.5 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. In certain cases, rates can reach 1,550 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.
Bakeries went on a general strike Monday, giving officials five days to “find a solution to the problem” to avoid further disruption.