Two Lebanese ministers make controversial Damascus visit

Lebanese Minister of Industry Hussein Hajj Hassan, left, in Damascus. (Reuters)
Updated 18 August 2017

Two Lebanese ministers make controversial Damascus visit

BEIRUT: Two Lebanese ministers held talks on Thursday in Syria on the sidelines of the opening of the Damascus International Fair.
Minister of Agriculture Ghazi Zaiter and Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan had received an invitation from the Syrian government to attend the fair.
After an intense political debate inside the Lebanese Cabinet regarding these visits, in which the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri had said that they would be in a personal capacity, the two ministers attended the fair.
Two days ago Al-Hariri reiterated the visits were personal. However, both ministers insisted the visits were in an official capacity.
The controversial trip has received considerable attention in Syria. The national Syrian media had received them at the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing of Jdaidet Yabous. “We will participate in the Damascus International Fair as Lebanese companies and producers and we will hold talks with Syrian officials on the common economic issues between the two brotherly countries, and we are convinced that the historic relations between Lebanon and Syria will continue,” said Hajj Hassan, who represents Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.
He went on to praise “the Syrian people, army and leaders with the great victories achieved by the Syrians and their allies in countering terrorism and standing resolute against the American-Israeli project that targeted Syria.”
“We will discuss with Syrian officials the means to implement the agreements signed between the two countries in terms of agriculture and industry, and despite all what has been said about the visit, we came here with full conviction and faith,” said Ghazi Zaiter, who represents the Amal movement in the Lebanese government.
He met with the Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who told him that “Syria is ready to supply Lebanon with an additional 500 megawatts of electricity at prices lower than those paid for the Turkish power ships” (that Lebanon had rented from Turkey).
The Lebanese minister also discussed with his Syrian counterpart Ahmad Al-Qadri “the mechanisms to promote and develop agricultural relations between the two countries,” the Syrian News Agency reported. Al-Qadri said that a joint technical committee from the two ministries will meet next week in Lebanon, stressing the need to combat all forms of agricultural smuggling between the two countries.
Zaiter insisted he went to Damascus as minister of agriculture, at the official invitation of the Syrian minister of economy.
“Some are trying to label it as a visit in a personal capacity, and we respect these political positions but they will be corrected soon and we will resuscitate the cooperation according to the common history of the two brotherly countries,” he said.
After his meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Mohammed Samer Al-Khalil, Hussein Hajj Hassan said: “The political and security developments in Syria led to victories and political, security, military and economic breakthroughs and this will have many impacts on Lebanon, the most important of which is the increase in security, military, political and economic stability in Lebanon.”
He stressed that it was also reflected on several other levels, including displaced Syrians in Lebanon. “The recovery of the Syrian economy leads to the recovery of the Lebanese economy thanks to the principles we believe in,” Hajj Hassan added.
Lebanese Public Works and Transportation Minister Youssef Fenianos joined the two ministers in Damascus Thursday afternoon, after the meeting of the Lebanese Cabinet that was held at the Presidential Palace. He said that the visits of the Al-Marada movement to Syria have always been sustained during the past six years.
“We have neither hidden this fact nor avoided visiting Syria as Marada ministers or officials,” he said.
In a statement, Fenianos added: “Hezbollah has always maintained good relations with Syria and talks between Speaker Nabih Berri and the Syrian Arab Republic were always sustained at the highest levels.
“We came to Syria without the consent of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He has an opinion and we have a different one. Everyone has his own convictions.”
Fenianos went on to say “there is a political team that wants to brag about its refusal, aiming to mobilize its followers, due to the lack of material that would help in the coming parliamentary elections.”
In this context, the president of the General Labor Union in Lebanon, Bechara El-Asmar, announced his participation in the work of the International Trade Union Forum on “Solidarity with Syrian People and Workers against Terrorism, Blockade, and Imperial Intervention Policies”. This forum is organized by the Syrian Labor Union on Sept. 11 and 12 in Damascus.

Syria rejects US demand for Iranian withdrawal

US this week issued a list of demands to Iran including the pullout of its forces from Syria. (AFP)
Updated 24 May 2018

Syria rejects US demand for Iranian withdrawal

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops, a rare instance in which Moscow suggested Iran should not maintain a permanent military presence in the country.
  • srael has warned it will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, and Israel struck a number of Iranian targets there earlier this month after what it said was a cross-border Iranian missile attack.

MOSCOW: Syria on Wednesday dismissed American calls for the withdrawal of Iranian troops and Lebanese Hezbollah militants from the war-torn country.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad told Russia’s Sputnik news agency that “this topic is not even on the agenda of discussion, since it concerns the sovereignty of Syria.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a list of demands this week for a new nuclear deal with Iran, including the pullout of its forces from Syria, where they have provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s government. Russia is also a key ally of Assad, and has been waging an air campaign in Syria since 2015.

Mikdad said in Wednesday’s remarks that Syria “highly appreciates” Russia’s military support as well as “advisers” from Iran and Hezbollah. He added that “we cannot let anyone even raise this issue” of the Iranian withdrawal. “Those who ask for something like that — and this is definitely not our Russian friends — are considering the possibility of intervention in all parts of Syria, including the support of terrorists in Syria and elsewhere in the region,” Mikdad said.

At a meeting with Assad, who visited Sochi last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops.

Putin’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, later commented that the Russian leader’s statement was aimed at the US and Turkey, along with Iran and Hezbollah. It marked a rare instance in which Moscow suggested Iran should not maintain a permanent military presence in the country. Russia has argued that its troops have deployed at the Syrian government’s invitation, while the military presence of the US and others has been illegal.

Lavrentyev’s statement appeared to reflect a difficult balancing act for the Kremlin, which hopes to maintain good ties with both Iran and Israel. 

Israel has warned it will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, and Israel struck a number of Iranian targets there earlier this month after what it said was a cross-border Iranian missile attack.

During the talks with Assad, Putin also encouraged him to send representatives to a commission in Geneva that would work out proposals for Syria’s new constitution as part of a peace process.

Mikdad said, however, that Damascus is not ready yet to nominate its candidates to the body.

“It is too early to speak about (candidates), but there are many people who are able to represent Syria and the Syrian government in these talks,” he said.

In Moscow, Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian military’s General Staff, pointed at the Syrian troops’ recent gains, saying Wednesday that “all the necessary conditions have been created for the revival of Syria as a single, unified state.”

He noted the government’s capture of the last remaining opposition enclave in southern Damascus from Daesh militants, which brought the entire capital and its far-flung suburbs under full government control for the first time since the civil war began in 2011.

The general also said Russia, Iran and Turkey set up nearly 30 checkpoints to monitor the de-escalation zone in the northern province of Idlib as part of a deal the three countries brokered.