Loose cannon

Bassil speaks Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. (The Daily Star/Tayyar, HO)

Instead of being focused on the country he represents as its top diplomat, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil seemed to be more concentrated on another country last weekend.

He called Saturday for the return of Syria to the Arab League, and Sunday said he had decided to visit Damascus - to help facilitate the return of refugees to their homeland.

In making these pronouncements, was he influenced by his seven-hour meeting with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah Thursday night?

Gosh, it’s hard to say.

What became immediately clear, though, was that Lebanon had to go into damage control after the foreign minister’s high-level representations that unfortunately aren’t in lockstep with his country’s official position.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been at pains to distance Lebanon from Bassil’s urgings to the Arab League. The premier has sought to shore up Lebanon’s commitment to the dissociation policy - a job that the foreign minister should be doing, not undermining. And he has had to underline a very basic point - that Lebanon understands the importance of Arab consensus on the Syria crisis.

Bassil’s statements are part of a concerted campaign to normalize relations with the Syrian regime, a position that contradicts Arab League resolutions and does not have the support of half the Lebanese population.

And as for the return of refugees, everybody knows that neither Beirut nor Damascus can make these decisions unilaterally or even bilaterally. Such steps are impacted by myriad local and international considerations, and must come in the context of a commitment to the principle of non-refoulement.

Bassil’s visit to Syria will achieve nothing on the refugee issue. What it will do, however, is create more political division in Lebanon, at a time when the country needs the opposite.

We need our leaders to unite and focus on fixing the economic situation without further derailments. We need leaders who seek to unite, not divide.

What we certainly do not need is drum beating, threats and hollow promises.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2019, on page 1.




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