Foreign minister eyes presidency with call to normalise ties with Damascus

Given how the economic and political circumstances are progressing, Bassil would merely reign over a rogue state that is morally and financially bankrupt.

Saturday 19/10/2019
Risky gambles. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil pauses during a news conference at a refugee camp in Arsal, near the border with Syria. (AP)
Risky gambles. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil pauses during a news conference at a refugee camp in Arsal, near the border with Syria. (AP)

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and political heir, triggered a political gale by declaring his intention to visit Syria, which would secure the immediate return of the Syrian refugees to their homes — or so he claimed.

Bassil’s cheeky announcement came during the Free Patriotic Movement’s annual celebration of the military debacle led by Aoun, who, on October 13, 1990, was head of the transitional government and commander of the Lebanese armed forces when it was overrun by the invading Syrian Army and Aoun went into 15 years of exile in France.

Bassil’s speech was aggressive as he accused his opponents of conspiring against Aoun’s presidency and working to ensure its failure by refusing to cooperate and by spreading rumours that threaten the country’s economic security.

However, normalisation with the Assad regime in Syria is no mere detail because it would further expose Lebanon politically with the international community, mainly the United States, as well as drive Lebanon further into the Iranian axis away from the Arab consensus.

Following Bassil’s skewed logic, Lebanon’s main obstacle towards escaping economic meltdown is to deport the 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Once these economic freeloaders are sent home, Lebanon’s failing economy would rebound. Bassil’s visit aims to empower Syrian President Bashar Assad, who would use this talk about refugee return to position himself as a victim of the obduracy of the West and the Arab Gulf countries.

In theory, the Lebanese government under Prime Minister Saad Hariri has adopted a policy of disassociation and thus Bassil’s decision to take the precarious step of breaking Assad’s Arab isolation without the consensus of all the members of the cabinet is a clear breach of government policy.

Coincidently, in his speech during the recent Arab foreign ministers’ extraordinary meeting in Cairo, Bassil sought to pave the way for normalisation with Assad by declaring: “Isn’t it time for Syria to return to the Arab League’s haven?”

On both occasions Hariri’s response to Bassil’s overreach was feeble and, rather than reminding Bassil that he was gambling with the political and economic fate of Lebanon, Hariri simply said he is free to do whatever he wants as an individual and that none of his actions would have any implications of the cabinet’s standing or policy.

Also, somewhat dangerously, Hariri commented that “if… [Bassil] wants to visit Syria to discuss the return of Syrian refugees, that’s his business. What’s important is the result,” affirming that the return of the refugees is a matter that the Assad regime could possibly resolve.

One of the primary reasons for the persistence of the refugee problem is that the Assad regime does not want the refugees back, either because it lacks the funds to rebuild the war-torn areas from which they fled or because the areas are colonies for Iran’s militias in Syria, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Bassil’s constant scapegoating of the Syrian refugees is nothing new nor will it end soon but his demands for rapid normalisation with the Assad regime is an indication of his presidential aspirations and comes as a part of a grand scheme he is working on.

Rumours have been circulating that Aoun, 84, is incapable of carrying out the duties of his office and that he wishes to step down but only after he makes sure Bassil would replace him.

Regardless of the validity of the reports, both Bassil and Hezbollah are preparing for the next presidential election, with Bassil or its other ally Suleiman Frangieh, Assad’s personal friend, as a second option. The real normalisation, therefore, is not with Assad but rather with the idea that Lebanon’s next president will not only be part of the Iranian axis but young and aggressive enough to neutralise any opposition.

As Bassil, 49, continues his forceful bid to become Lebanon’s next president, his opponents, and perhaps his allies, might be comforted with the fact that given how the economic and political circumstances are progressing, he would merely reign over a rogue state that is morally and financially bankrupt, with no chance of recovery.