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With friends like Syria, who needs enemies?

After three years of absence due to a political standoff that left its presidential post vacant for two years, Lebanon finally took part in the UN General Assembly. But what Lebanon are we talking about when we say that it was present this year? This is not a sarcastic question, but any observer of the meetings and positions of President Michel Aoun and his delegation in New York, away from the Lebanese media clamor surrounding them, would realize how flimsy the their presence was. To put it simply, it was a gloomy picture of deep internal and regional schism.
Lebanon experienced semi-international isolation at the UN. No extensive official meetings were held for Aoun and his accompanying delegation. The Lebanese president’s meetings were limited to a small number of presidents, and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The same goes for the Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who did not meet his counterparts, especially from the influential countries. The culmination of his activities came with meeting the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem. The trip of the Lebanese delegation to New York was marked by that obnoxious picture which shows the Lebanese Foreign Minister with the Foreign Minister of a criminal regime.
A few weeks earlier, Lebanon had avoided the prospect of a government collapse after some political parties suggested sending an official delegation to Syria following the border battles in which Hezbollah and the Lebanese army fought against armed militias. Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement suggested at the time that it was necessary to visit and thank Syria.
The internal division was so severe that it nearly caused the collapse of the government, so the idea of visiting Syria was set aside. Yet suddenly, Gebran Bassil appeared with the Syrian delegation in New York. No doubt this meeting raises many questions. Do the President and his team think that the answer to their international isolation comes through meeting the foreign minister of a criminal and isolated regime? The justification of coordinating with the Syrian regime to solve the refugee problem is unconvincing here; for what conditions for the return of refugees and what havens are we talking about if we ask the refugees to go back to the regime that forced them to flee their homes in the first place — and given that this regime does not want them back.

The Lebanese delegation’s performance at the UN General Assembly was flimsy and isolated, and the meeting between the Lebanese and Syrian foreign ministers will only cause more divisions in Beirut.

Diana Moukalled

Whatever the reasons for the failure of Lebanon in New York, it is bound to cause more political tension back home in the days to come if the team that refuses the normalization of relations with Syria chooses to escalate its position. The Bassil-Mouallem meeting can only be taken as part of the political and moral push which Aoun gave to this axis when he said that Lebanon could not ask Hezbollah to give up its weapons as long as Israel provokes Lebanon, and that any solution for the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons should come within a comprehensive regional settlement.
Moreover, Aoun was described as the only one who dared to say “No” to the US in the most important international forum, and a media campaign surfaced highlighting the issue of the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon based on remarks by President Donald Trump in his speech to the General Assembly. The Lebanese approach to the issue was surprising because it appeared as a distortion of Trump’s stance on Hezbollah and Iran, who he accused of terrorism, and threatened to respond to and face their growing influence.
The outcome of these paradoxes has been more fragmentation and weakness. Surely, pressurizing Lebanon to return to the Syrian fold will only result in more regression and division.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. Twitter: @dianamoukalled