Tensions rise as Cabinet postpones talks on Syrian refugees’ return

The Daily Star

Joseph Haboush

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Despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s request to put aside controversial topics during Wednesday’s Cabinet session in Baabda, tensions escalated when the topic of Syrian refugees’ return to their homeland was raised. Minister of State for Planning Michel Pharaon and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Qanso were embroiled in a brief verbal spat after the latter reportedly said there would be no return of refugees if there was no dialogue with the Syrian government. “I told him that it is completely unacceptable to say this and I’m not sure if he was posing a threat or trying to instigate something,” Pharaon told The Daily Star. Following last week’s raid by the Lebanese Army on a makeshift Syrian refugee camp hosting extremists, the return of refugees has been the focal point of political bickering this week. Prime Minister Saad Hariri told ministers that there was no point in discussing this for the time being as there was no consensus on the matter. “We’ve been hearing calls recently for Lebanon to open communication with the Syrian regime to discuss the return of Syrian refugees ... and we wish for their return today before tomorrow,” Hariri said during the Cabinet session. Hariri added: “We consider this to be the responsibility of the United Nation and international organizations affiliated with it, who need to devise a plan for [the refugees’] safe return.” Hezbollah and parties politically aligned with Syria have called for the convening of dialogue with the Syrian government in order to facilitate the return of refugees to safe areas inside the war-torn country. However, ministers and MPs mainly affiliated with the Future Movement and Lebanese Forces have widely criticized the call, claiming there was no legitimate Syrian government. Information Minister Melhem Riachi told reporters that the return of refugees was the role of the U.N., while deputy premier and Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani said that “it [was] unknown who was responsible for securing the safe return of the refugees according to the international agreements ... and the road is still long regarding this crisis.” Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh was stern in refusing to communicate with the Syrian side, saying, “We will not negotiate with a criminal regime for the sake of refugees returning and the solution is through the U.N.”However, Future bloc MP Atef Majdalani ruled out a potential rift between Cabinet and President Michel Aoun as a result of the new disagreement. Speaking to Voice of Lebanon (93.3), Majdalani said “Aoun has set a clear road map to resolve this crisis.” During Wednesday’s session, Aoun lauded the efforts of the Army during last week’s operation in a Syrian settlement that resulted in more than 300 arrests, and he rejected any criticism launched at the Army. The Army Tuesday released a statement confirming the deaths of four Syrian detainees and said they were a result of preexisting health conditions. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa released a statement Wednesday praising the Army’s operations but demanded a report on the reasons behind their deaths. “The [agency] calls for all legal measures to be taken with respect to international human rights laws and international treaties which Lebanon has signed,” a statement from the U.N. office read. The Army released a statement Wednesday evening saying that of the detained Syrian suspects last week, 15 were released while 85 were referred to General Security for being on Lebanese soil unlawfully. Separately, the Council of Maronite Bishops praised the recent crackdown by security forces as well as the Army for its raids on militants in Arsal. “They need all the necessities guaranteed in terms of financial support, psychological support and political backing,” a statement following the council’s monthly meeting read. Another major development discussed during the session, one which Aoun commended, was the recent handing over of a wanted extremist seeking refuge in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh. Aoun warned against allowing refugee camps “to be transformed into safe havens for terrorists.” Turning to other pressing issues at the Cabinet session, Aoun called for relevant ministers to submit their recommendations to Cabinet for vacant diplomatic, administrative and judicial posts. Echoing Aoun’s calls for filling vacant government posts, Hariri tasked ministers with putting forward their recommendations for vacant positions in order to be studied and approved by Cabinet. Aoun also called on the judiciary to play a key role in cooperating with security forces to clamp down on recent lawlessness because “the state’s authority is reinforced by punitive measures against violators of the law.” Ministers also discussed the long-awaited national budget, yet to be passed. “Let it be known my firm commitment to the constitution ... especially Article 52 dealing with international agreements,” Aoun was quoted as saying. He added: “I will not sign off on any loans or debt to the government before I carefully study and analyze each detail.” Hariri informed ministers that he would be visiting Washington, D.C. on July 22 to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump before visiting Paris and Moscow in August and September, respectively. – The Daily Star

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