MON 21 - 5 - 2018
Date: Jul 10, 2017
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Cabinet to meet as row over refugees’ return heats up
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The Cabinet is slated to meet this week amid a snowballing row over whether Lebanon should talk to the Syrian government to coordinate a safe return of Syrian refugees to their country. The dispute between two rival Lebanese camps over whether Lebanon should enter into direct talks with the Syrian regime on the refugees’ return to safe areas in the war-ravaged country has seriously jolted Cabinet unity at a time the government is struggling to stave off the negative fallout of the 6-year-old bloody conflict next door.

“There is no solution to the problem of the refugees’ return to their country except through a dialogue with the Syrian government,” Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Qanso told The Daily Star Sunday.

“Since the refugees’ return is a divisive issue, a dialogue among the Lebanese factions is required first before launching a dialogue between the two governments on the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country,” he said.

Although the refugees’ issue is not listed on the agenda of this week’s Cabinet session, Qanso, who represents the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the Cabinet, said that some ministers might opt to bring it up, given the urgency of the matter.

During last week’s Cabinet session at Baabda Palace, Hezbollah ministers and their allies called for direct talks with the Syrian government to coordinate the refugees’ return. But Prime Minister Saad Hariri, backed by ministers of the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party, staunchly rejected any contact with Damascus, saying this issue is the responsibility of the United Nations.

At Hariri’s request, the thorny issue of the refugees’ return has been set aside.

“Due to the ministers’ discord over the return of Syrian refugees to their country, it has been agreed to put this issue in the hands of President Michel Aoun who will try to find a solution,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.

The source said that Hariri would chair the Cabinet session scheduled to be held at the Grand Serail at 11 a.m. Wednesday with some 60 items on the agenda.

Contrary to wide expectations, the Cabinet is unlikely to approve any long-awaited appointments to fill a number of vacant administrative, diplomatic and judicial posts because of conflicting proposals by ministers.

“Before approving any appointments, the Cabinet will study and agree on a mechanism that will govern civil service appointments,” the source said.

One important item on the agenda is a proposal for generating electricity through wind farms as part of exploring cleaner and renewable energy sources, the source added.

This item was supposed to be discussed during last week’s session, but it was postponed because Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil was visiting the United States.

Abi Khalil was also reported to be waiting for a report from the government Tenders Department concerning his electricity reform plan to lease two power barges to increase electricity supply over the summer.

The plan has drawn opposition from key political parties and raised questions over whether Abi Khalil, who represents the Free Patriotic Movement, had overstepped his jurisdiction to carry out the bidding process without the Tenders Department and whether the large sums involved required the scrutiny of the government body.

Other topics on the agenda include one calling for repairing and renovating grain silos at Beirut Port, and a request from the Economy Ministry to appoint attaches at the Lebanese diplomatic missions abroad.

The issue of returning Syrian refugees to their country was thrust into the forefront on June 30 following the Lebanese Army’s pre-emptive strike against terrorist groups in two Syrian refugee encampments in the northeastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria. In the operation during which the Army detained some 360 militant suspects, five suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing one refugee girl and wounding seven soldiers.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the FPM leader, has supported direct talks with the Syrian government over the refugees’ return, pointing out that Lebanon maintains “diplomatic, military, security and financial relations with Syria.”

Economy Minister Raed Khoury, who represents the FPM in the Cabinet, said Sunday the presence of Syrian refugees has cost Lebanon $12 billion.

“The [Syrian] refugees are straining Lebanon’s infrastructure and electricity. The cost of Syrian refugees on Lebanon has approximately reached $12 billion,” Khoury told a local TV station. He said the Lebanese government has already asked the United Nations to purchase commodities it offers to the refugees from Lebanon. “But so far there is no commitment on this subject,” he said.

Khoury added that Syrian refugees were competing with Lebanese workers and doing jobs they have no right to do. “They [refugees] are setting up illegal institutions that are competing with Lebanese institutions,” he said.

According to Lebanese government estimates, there are an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, straining the country’s battered economy and weak infrastructure and posing security threats. Dozens of Syrian families returned to their country in June in a deal brokered between Hezbollah and Syrian rebel factions.

Separately, Bassil warned that Lebanon could not advance while corruption remained rampant in the public administration.

“This country cannot rise and have a [good] economy as long as there are corruption and corrupt [officials],” Bassil said in a speech at the opening of the new office for the FPM in the northern town of Chekka. “These corrupt people can be seen in our society through the monopolies present in all state administrations. This is the real cost on the economy. The money should be put in the Treasury for the nation’s revival.”

Bassil lashed out at corruption which, he said, “controls a part of the media, the judiciary and political power.”

“A Lebanese man must be liberated in order to live in dignity. This situation can only be attained with the presence of a state to replace politicians, feudalists or militiamen,” he said.

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