Lebanon's President to ask Arab summit for help on refugees’ return

President Aoun’s call will be the latest Lebanese plea to reduce the burdens of hosting over 1 million displaced Syrians

Lebanese President Michel Aoun arrives at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia March 25, 2019. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun arrives at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia March 25, 2019. Image used for illustrative purpose.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun will appeal to Arab heads of state meeting in Tunis over the weekend to help facilitate the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their country without having to wait for a political settlement to the conflict in Syria, political sources said Friday.

Aoun’s call will be the latest Lebanese plea to reduce the burdens of hosting over 1 million displaced Syrians, whose presence is draining the country’s flagging economy and frail infrastructure.

Aoun will leave Beirut Saturday, heading Lebanon’s delegation to the annual Arab League summit slated to be held in Tunis Sunday, a statement from the presidency said Friday. He will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib and Culture Minister Mohammad Daoud.

Aoun will deliver a speech at the one-day summit, which is set to begin at 11 a.m. Sunday.

“In his speech to the summit, President Aoun is expected to make an appeal to Arab leaders to help Lebanon secure the return of Syrian refugees to their country without having to link their return to a political settlement to the conflict in Syria,” a well-placed political source told The Daily Star.

Aoun will also stress that Lebanon can no longer endure the heavy costs of hosting 1.5 million displaced Syrians, according to government estimates, while the conflict in Syria has entered its ninth year with no political solution in sight, the source said.

In his meetings with Arab and foreign officials at Baabda Palace, Aoun has repeatedly called on the international community to secure the refugee returns without having to wait for a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Voicing concerns that the displaced Syrians might stay in Lebanon indefinitely in the absence of a political settlement, the president cited the presence of nearly half a million Palestinian refugees who have been living in Lebanon since the creation of Israel in 1948 and are still waiting for a political solution to ensure their return to their homes.

But the international community has been vocal in refusing to assist in returns to Syria until a political solution has been reached.

A Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star that Aoun’s speech was expected to touch on Lebanon’s positions on recent regional developments, including U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision early this week to officially recognize the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory, a dramatic shift from decades of American policy.

Aoun will also hold talks with several Arab leaders on the sidelines of the summit, the source said.

In reply to a question, the source said he did not know whether Aoun would demand at the summit Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Syria’s membership in the Arab League has been suspended since 2011, following the outbreak of the country’s civil war.

Arab foreign ministers met in Tunis Friday to prepare the summit agenda. In addition to Iran, the summit is expected to be dominated by the Trump administration’s acceptance of Israeli control over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem.

Israel seized the strategic Golan plateau from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed it in 1981, in a move never recognized by the international community.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil dismissed fears over the fate of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba hills, which Lebanon has long insisted they belonged to it, after Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“This territory [Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba] is Lebanese. Our people have proved their capability to reassert their rights. There will be no place for [Israeli] occupation on our land,” Bassil told a news conference in Sofia following talks with the Bulgarian president, Parliament speaker and his Bulgarian counterpart Ekaterina Zakharieva focusing on bilateral cooperation and the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Arab summit comes as the United States appears to have adopted an “advanced” position on the refugee crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country was discussing with its Arab and Western partners how to help create favorable conditions that would facilitate the Syrian refugees’ return to their country.

He made the remarks during a hearing of the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.

Bassil praised Pompeo’s remarks as an “advanced step” toward resolving the refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, as Lebanon is coming under mounting international pressure to enact a series of key economic and financial reforms recommended at the CEDRE conference to bolster its battered economy, the chairman of Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee Friday questioned the government over its delay in passing the 2019 draft state budget.

Given that the Cabinet had been formed almost two months ago and the budget draft still had not been passed, the government “didn’t give this issue the importance it deserves in order to regulate state finances,” MP Ibrahim Kanaan wrote in a letter to Speaker Nabih Berri.

Kanaan also included in the letter questions related to the budget as well as to the state’s financial accounts from 1993 to 2017, demanding a response from the government within 15 days.

The 2019 draft state budget is currently waiting to be discussed and approved by the Cabinet before sending it to Parliament for final ratification.

The budget is expected to reflect the government’s commitment to reducing the country’s deficit-to-GDP ratio by 1 percentage point a year, as part of the reforms deemed crucial to unlocking over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by international donors at the CEDRE conference held in Paris last year.

Among other things, Lebanon has promised to fight rampant corruption in the public administration, curb the waste of public funds, and reduce subsidies to the state-run Electricite du Liban, estimated at $2 billion annually.

Berri himself had earlier this week called on Cabinet to pass the budget so that it could be referred to the Finance and Budget Committee and then go to Parliament. He warned that if the budget proposal did not put forward a plan to lower the deficit-to-GDP ratio by at least 1 percentage point a year, “the country will not be in a good position.”

Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said in remarks published in Al-Joumhouria newspaper Friday that he expected discussions on the 2019 draft state budget to begin by the Cabinet next week.

Khalil has proposed a reduction of expenses in all ministries as a means to slash the budget deficit. “We can definitely go ahead with in a reduction [of expenses] if there is a political decision to do so,” Khalil said Friday, noting that he was ready to present the budget draft to the Cabinet.

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