Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Cabinet faces a new challenge as his foreign minister has doubled down on comments about re-engaging with Damascus despite an official Lebanese government policy of no political relations with the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
Gebran Bassil on Sunday said he intended to visit Syria a day after calling on a meeting of the Arab League to readmit Mr Al Assad eight years after the country was suspended for the brutal crackdown on protesters at the start of the uprising in 2011.
The foreign minister’s comments have deepened a rift within the Lebanese Cabinet between those who want to normalise relations with their neighbour and those like Mr Hariri who oppose the move.
The issue of relations with Syria are central to a split that has existed since the end of Damascus’ 15-year occupation of Lebanon in 2005. Until recently, the country’s major political camps were divided down the March 14 and March 8 blocs that represented those that wanted independence from Syria and those that wanted closer relations after Damascus was forced to withdraw.
The two blocs now exist largely in name only with political alliances having shifted in recent years.
“I want to go to Syria, so that the Syrian people can return to Syria,” said Mr Bassil in reference to the over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The state-run National News Agency quoted him as telling a crowd of supporters of his Free Patriotic Movement political party that, “I want to go to Syria because I want Lebanon’s sovereignty and economy to breathe.”
A small country of roughly 4.5 million people, Lebanon has hosted the largest refugee population per capita during the years long civil war. The impact has worsened the fragile Lebanese economy, which is expected to enter a recession this year for the first time in two decades, despite billions in international assistance to help support refugees and vulnerable local communities.
Mr Bassil has been vocal in demanding Syrians return home despite international bodies like the United Nations issuing a warning that it is not yet safe for largescale returns.
Mr Hariri reacted to Mr Bassil's speech on Monday morning, beginning with a reference to his assassinated father, former prime minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri whose killing — blamed on Hezbollah on the orders of Syria — led a month later to Syria's withdrawal.
"This is just a reminder, Rafic Hariri's blood sent the Syrian troops back to Syria. If the head of the Free Patriotic Movement wants to visit Syria to discuss the return of displaced Syrians, this is his business but the result is what is important. The Syrian regime should not make the visit a reason for his return to Lebanon because we don't trust the regime has intentions to return the migrants … and if the return takes place, then we will be the first ones to welcome it [to praise the return]," he said. "The country is in no need of new conflicts and my main worry today is how we will stop the economic crisis."
The reference to Mr Bassil as the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement not foreign minister signals that the prime minister is not officially sanctioning the visit and he also pointed out specifically that this did not represent a return of the Syrian government to Beirut.
Since 2011, there have also been no government-sanctioned official visits to Syria.
But Hezbollah, which supports Syria’s president militarily and is represented by three ministers in the government, ignores this and its ministers regularly go — although not with Cabinet approval.
Mr Hariri’s press office issued a statement on Sunday reaffirming Lebanon’s adherence to “Arab consensus regarding the Syrian crisis”, in a sharp rebuke of Mr Bassil’s call for Syria’s reintegration in the Arab League at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to address Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria in Cairo on Saturday.
Mr Bassil, who heads the party founded by his father-in-law, President Michel Aoun, also called for Syria’s return to the Arab League at an economic and social development summit in Beirut last January.
A Maronite Christian, Mr Aoun allied with Hezbollah in 2006, helping him become president a decade later.
While Mr Bassil is technically allied with Hezbollah, he and Mr Hariri have had a close relationship in recent years.
Mr Bassil met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Thursday night to talk about the economy and refugees. Local media reported that the meeting lasted seven hours.