Speaker Nabih Berri Sunday urged Arab countries to help facilitate the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their country, in the latest Lebanese appeal to reduce the burden of hosting over 1 million displaced Syrians.
Berri issued the appeal while addressing the 29th Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union’s conference, which opened in Amman Sunday by electing him as secretary of the meet.
“On behalf of the [Lebanese] Parliament, I ask the 29th union conference to take a firm decision against deals of changing land, the alternative homeland and resettlement of Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrians in Lebanon and in Jordan,” Berri said in his televised speech Sunday night.
“I call on your countries to facilitate and contribute toward eliminating obstacles to the return of Syrian brothers, who sought shelter in Lebanon and Jordan from the fires of war, to their homeland after precious parts [of Syria] have been liberated from terrorism and armed gangs,” he added.
Earlier in the day, Berri met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
The pair agreed on the need for Lebanon and Jordan to communicate with the Syrian government over the return of refugees to their country, a statement released by the speaker’s media office said. King Abdullah also offered to provide Lebanon with electricity in exchange for water, the statement said.
Berri’s talks with the king covered bilateral ties and cooperation between Lebanon and Jordan, inter-Arab relations and developments in the region, the state-run National News Agency reported.
The Jordanian monarch reaffirmed the “strong relations between the two brotherly countries,” while stressing the need to “expand cooperation between Lebanon and Jordan for the benefit of the two countries.”
Part of this effort may involve the two countries’ respective resources of electricity and water. During their meeting, King Abdullah said there was a surplus of electricity in Jordan, while Berri spoke of a surplus in water in Lebanon. King Abdullah suggested a swap.
“You have a surplus in water and we can exchange electricity for water,” he told Berri.
In addressing the two countries’ common concern over the Syrian refugee issue, King Abdullah and Berri talked about the “need for Lebanon and Jordan to communicate with the Syrian government to ensure the return of Syrian brothers to their country. They agreed on coordination and communication in this respect,” the statement said.
A total of 671,000 Syrian refugees were registered in Jordan at the end of 2018, and almost 1 million in Lebanon, though the actual number is likely much higher. Lebanese officials put the number of displaced Syrians at 1.5 million, causing a drain on the country’s flagging economy and frail infrastructure.
Lebanese political parties are sharply split over ties with Syria.
The Free Patriotic Movement, the Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies support normalized ties and coordination with Syria to ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party strongly oppose any direct contacts with the regime before a political solution to the conflict in Syria has been reached.
Berri and the king also discussed the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria, which reopened in last October after having been closed for three years, facilitating trade among Levantine countries. Addressing the conference, titled “Jerusalem is the Eternal Capital of the State of Palestine,” Berri called for closing Arab ranks and putting an end to the isolation of Syria, whose membership in the 22-member Arab League has been suspended since 2011 after the war broke out there.
“As parliamentarians, we cannot feel responsibility toward the Palestinians while we are isolating Syria and building barriers among each other,” he said. Berri repeated the word “resistance” three times to show his support for Palestinian resistance and that of Hezbollah against Israeli occupation.
Denouncing repeated Israeli airstrikes on Damascus, Berri warned of “deals and schemes aiming to liquidate the central issue, Palestine, and present us with a geographical and political fait accompli that does not fulfill the requirements of just and comprehensive peace.”
While Berri was in Amman, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan was in Tunis attending the 36th conference of the Arab Interior Ministers Council, and Telecommunications Minister Mohamed Choucair was in Cairo for Egypt’s fourth Investment Forum.
Meanwhile, tensions between the leaders of Lebanon’s two main Druze political parties had abated by Sunday, after a Twitter spat broke out over a decree the Syrian government issued to regulate the travel of Lebanese Druze sheikhs to the country.
According to multiple Lebanese Druze politicians, the Syrian government Saturday announced that Lebanese Druze sheikhs would be allowed to enter the country only if they possessed an ID card signed by Lebanese Druze Sheikh Nasreddine al-Gharib.
An ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Gharib is considered to be the spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Druze community by Lebanese Democratic Party leader MP Talal Arslan, a rival of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt.
Druze spiritual affairs in Lebanon are officially led by Sheikh Naim Hasan, the head of the Druze Spiritual Council and an ally of Joumblatt.
A copy of the ID card’s template, with Gharib’s signature in the corner, circulated on Lebanese media sites.
Jad Haidar, head of communications for the LDP, told The Daily Star that the new ID card system had been introduced “in the interest of the sheikhs’ safety” for when they are traveling to and from Syria, which has a significant Druze minority population.
Syrian security forces at the border would be responsible for verifying the identity of anyone wishing to enter the country, he said, adding that Syrian sheikhs have long been required to carry a similar special ID card when entering Lebanon.
A source from the PSP told The Daily Star that he considered the decree invalid because as Gharib was a religious leader, affairs of national security should not be placed under his authority.
“One country cannot impose measures on a sect in another country,” the source said, adding that the move was likely an attempt to cause divisions within Lebanon’s Druze community.
The Syrian regime’s announcement sparked a war of words between the two rival Druze leaders Saturday, with Joumblatt tweeting, “I advise [Gharib] to stay away from any role that is not suitable.”
Arslan hit back at Joumblatt, saying Gharib “is much more legitimate than all the corrupt thieves who wear religious clothing to cover their sins.”
Pro-Syria former minister Wiam Wahhab also weighed in on the matter, thanking Assad for the decision, which he said “protects the dignity” of Druze sheikhs.
But by Sunday, Arslan and Wahhab had deleted their tweets, saying members of the Druze community had requested that they do so.
Joumblatt also removed his tweets, saying Saturday he hoped “our comrades and supporters do not attach importance to a statement from one side or the other.”