Hariri's government faces its first serious test

by Bassem Ajami

18 March 2019 | 17:00

Source: by Annahar

  • by Bassem Ajami
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 18 March 2019 | 17:00

This photo shows Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (AFP Photo)

Less than one month after its formation, Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government is facing its first serious test.

The government is composed of a loose coalition of political groups with conflicting agendas on almost all issues. The most pressing issue, however, is policy toward the repatriation of 1.5 million Syrian nationals who took refuge in Lebanon to escape the civil war in their country. The Syrian refugees make almost half of Lebanon's population.

The issue assumed prominence early on. Its significance arises not only from the huge number of refugees it involves but also from the fact that it is entangled with other questions each of which is explosive on its own. These include the influence of Hezbollah in the country, relations with Syria, relations with Iran and Arab countries, as well as ties with Russia, the United States and with the international community.

Add to this volatile mix, the deteriorating state of the Lebanese economy, and a not very pleasant picture emerges. And while Syrian refugees are also present in large numbers in Jordan and Turkey, as well as in Germany, it is only in Lebanon that their repatriation raises such complex issues.

All parties in Lebanon have declared their support for the repatriation of the Syrian refugees. The divide, however, is between the pro-Syrian regime group, which demands their immediate return, while those opposed to the regime argue that it is latter which is preventing their return.

Last year, a procedure for their repatriation has been worked out by the chief of the Lebanese Directorate of General Security. It involves sending lists of the names of those wishing to return for approval by the the Syrian government. Only a small fraction of those wishing to return has been approved. But why the lists? Why should Syrian refugees who fled the civil war in their country need permission to return to their homes?

"Because not all those who carry Syrian citizenship are Syrians," commented one Lebanese pundit who supports the Bashar Assad's regime. Such response only supports the argument of those who call for their voluntary repatriation subject to a political solution. It lends credibility to their case that the Assad regime aims at creating a demographic change in the country in order to consolidate its grip on power.

Moreover, laws that were recently passed in Syria to confiscate properties belonging to the "enemies of the state," as well as the regime's deliberate destruction of official records, endorse such view. Still, the Syrian government never showed any interest in the affairs of millions of its countrymen spread in other countries. It never sent an emissary to investigate their situation in Lebanon, or in any other country.

And while there is a functioning Syrian embassy in Beirut, neither the ambassador nor any member of his staff bothered to visit or offer aid, to a single refugee camp, out of the tens of camps scattered all over the country. The embassy even refuses to register new-born Syrian children. The Assad regime wants Lebanon to start talks with it about the repatriation of the Syrian refugees. But why the talks?

Unlike most Arab countries, Lebanon never broke diplomatic relations with Syria. The Syrian regime, which is boycotted by most countries, aims from such talks at receiving recognition and legitimacy, as well as to bring back Lebanon into its orbit. While the issue carries all the ingredients needed to bring down the Hariri government, this is unlikely to happen immediately but it remains a ticking bomb that could go off at any time, and cause the collapse of the government.      

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