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Syrian regime’s invite creates rift in Lebanon’s ‘unity government’

Lebanese President Michel Aoun hands out a sword to a Lebanese officer cadet during his graduation parade at a military academy marking the 72nd Army Day in Fayadyeh, near Beirut, on Aug. 1. (Reuters)

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Wednesday banned official visits to Syria by ministers — and was immediately defied by a Hezbollah member of his Cabinet.
Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan said he would accept an invitation to attend the Damascus International Fair this month in an official capacity.
“I will attend the opening of the Damascus exhibition and I will meet with our fellow ministers there,” he said.
Earlier, Hariri had reminded a Cabinet meeting that they were “a national unity government” and should distance themselves from regional conflicts. For that reason, he said, any “Lebanese ministerial visit to Syria in the name of the government” would be refused.
The Syrian regime has invited several Lebanese ministers to the Damascus event, which begins on Aug. 17 and is aimed at “rebuilding Syria.” They include Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a known opponent of the Assad regime.
Information Minister Melhem Riachy said after the Cabinet meeting: “Prime Minister Hariri was clear about the disassociation policy and distancing ourselves from regional conflicts and axes. The visit of any minister to Syria will be on a personal level and not in the name of the government.”
The invitations from Damascus have led to the re-emergence of internal Lebanese political polarization over the Syrian regime.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said after a meeting of MPs at his home: “There are diplomatic relations and agreements between Lebanon and Syria, and recent events prove that communication and cooperation is normal and in the interest of both countries.”
But the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said: “This government was formed on a clear basis, which is to put aside the differences and focus on people’s concerns. There has been a violation of the agreement on the basis of which the government was formed, for instance, Hassan Nasrallah lashing out at Gulf states.
“We were surprised by some ministers suggesting official visits to Syria.
“Is Syria’s reconstruction possible when a political solution has failed to be reached so far? What happened today is an attempt to give political impetus to the Syrian regime.”
Geagea said his group would “not accept any formal dealings between the Lebanese government and the so-called Syrian government as it will harm Lebanon and its ties with Arab countries.
“Any minister who desires to visit Syria can do so in his personal capacity and not as a formal commissioner sent by the Lebanese government. Governments such as Turkey and Jordan found solutions for the refugee crisis without communicating with the Syrian regime.”

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