Lebanon decides to formally negotiate with Syria on refugee repatriation

Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon's caretaker Minister of the Displaced, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office at the ministry, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. (AP)
Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon's caretaker Minister of the Displaced, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office at the ministry, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 07 July 2022

Lebanon decides to formally negotiate with Syria on refugee repatriation

Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon's caretaker Minister of the Displaced, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press. (AP)
  • Country says refugees burden services, infrastructure
  • Damascus talks planned after Eid holiday

BEIRUT: Lebanon has decided to formally negotiate refugee repatriation with Syria, a minister in the caretaker government said on Thursday.

The Minister of Displaced Affairs Issam Sharaf El-Din said he would visit Damascus after the Eid Al-Adha holiday, making him the first Lebanese minister to visit the Syrian capital in an official capacity since 2011.

Sharaf El-Din will discuss the plan to repatriate Syrian refugees in stages and “secure the executive mechanisms” for their return.

He confirmed he had an official mandate from President Michel Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati for the Syrian refugee issue.

BACKGROUND

International organizations were trying to obstruct this issue by threatening to not help refugees if they returned to their country, said Minister of Displaced Affairs Issam Sharaf El-Din.

According to Sharaf El-Din, the plan stipulated “the repatriation of 15,000 refugees per month” because Lebanon believed the war in Syria had ended and the country was safe. “Lebanon will not accept the non-return of Syrian refugees to their country.”

Lebanon, which is already in crisis, says Syrian refugees are a heavy burden on basic services and infrastructure.

According to Lebanese protesters, the refugees shared “our bread, which has turned into a rare commodity, and people are scrambling to get it in the past days.”

Lebanese ministers have previously visited Damascus and met Syrian officials, despite the suspension of Syria's Arab League membership, but they have been keen to stress the visits were personal.

The Syrian minister of energy visited Lebanon more than once in the context of signing a contract for the passage of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon through Syria.

On Thursday, Sharaf El-Din confirmed that Lebanon dealt with the Syrian state in particular because it was the second party directly concerned with the refugee issue regardless of the UNHCR’s opinion.

He also said the Syrian state was very cooperative in the matter.

Those who wanted to return but had judicial rulings against them or any specific legal circumstances would have their cases dealt with or deported to third countries, he added.

International organizations were trying to obstruct this issue by threatening to not help refugees if they returned to their country, said Sharaf El-Din.

The UNHCR estimates there are fewer than 1 million refugees in Lebanon, while Lebanon estimates their number to be 1.5 million.

The door to repatriation was opened two years ago by submitting the names of refugees who wished to return to their villages and cities to Syrian authorities.

Those wishing to return had to obtain the approval of Syrian authorities. But the process later stopped as many refugees did not get approval because authorities wanted to secure an adequate infrastructure for living.

A source in the Lebanese government told Arab News: “The process is continuing on two fronts. Minister Sharaf El-Din takes charge of the side related to the Syrian authorities and holds an official cover from the Lebanese side, and Prime Minister Mikati takes over the side related to international institutions.

“So far, Lebanon has not received any answer from the UNHCR. There are thorny issues, including those related to Syrian dissidents, and these issues must be dealt with calmly to reach the implementation stage.”

MP Razi Al-Hajj, from the Lebanese Forces party, criticized the “populism and contradictory agendas” in addressing the issue of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

He told a press conference on Thursday: “Why, until now, are there no unified figures in the executive authority institutions about the number of refugees? What about the classification of these refugees between displaced people and workers? And why has this legal classification been ignored until now?

“The current Lebanese government and the governments that preceded it ignored signing a cooperation protocol with the UNHCR. If they fear that this protocol will turn Lebanon into a country of asylum, a basic cooperation protocol can define rights, duties, and repatriation policy for refugees.

“A proposal to establish temporary border shelters inside Syria, under the auspices of the United Nations, was rejected in the past. Was the rejection intended to maintain easy smuggling and open borders for Hezbollah as well?"

He asked why the government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had not requested the International Support Group for Lebanon to put the issue of repatriation of Syrian refugees on the agenda of UN Security Council sessions, and why it had not requested that Lebanon be an observer member of the Geneva process, given its “inability to tolerate” these burdens.

He said Lebanon had submitted a belated request to be an observer member of the Astana process, which ended in “catastrophic failure.”


Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
Updated 09 August 2022

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
  • With almost half a million Facebook followers, Azad Mohamad posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens

HALABJA: Kurdish Iraqi farmer Azad Mohamad has become a social media star by sharing tips on growing fresh fruit and vegetables in the sun-parched country that is highly vulnerable to climate change.

The moustachioed 50-year-old with almost half a million Facebook followers posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens.

“They should make you agriculture minister,” one of his fans, Ahmed Hassan, commented on a recent video.

Mohamad also uses his popular online platform to raise awareness about protecting the environment and the need to support local farmers, in his native Kurdistan region and beyond.

“Developed-country farmers have government support and harvesting machines,” said Mohamad.

“Our farmers do everything themselves with their own sweat — and when they lose money at the end of the year, they start over with the same passion and energy.”

He also has a message for authorities in Iraq, which the UN classifies as the world’s fifth most vulnerable country to climate change and where many are mired in poverty despite Iraq’s oil wealth.

“Our land is fertile, and our earth is like gold,” Mohamad said.

Therefore, he said, the government should “focus on agriculture rather than oil, for a sustainable economy.”

From his farm near Halabja, Mohamad squats among grape vines and other plants, wearing traditional Kurdish clothing as a friend uses a mobile phone to film him.

Many of his followers, he said, are not farmers but people who “have transformed their roof into gardens — and that’s a way to better preserve the environment.”

He invites his Facebook followers to post their questions, and says some farmers have sent him videos of their crops, thanking him for his help.

“That makes me very happy,” he said.

In one video, he advises farmers to space their trees out by just two meters instead of four to keep the soil shady and damp, protecting it from the scorching summer heat.

“With desertification, and low rainfall, we must change how we plant trees,” he said.

“Look at these tomatoes,” he added, gesturing at a group of plants. “Because they are in the shade, they are juicy and perfect — whereas these that are in the direct sun have been burned.”

Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been spared the worst effects of desertification, water scarcity and drought that have ravaged other parts of the country.

“The region has high rainfall precipitation compared to the rest of Iraq,” said a 2019 study involving UN agencies and the autonomous Kurdistan regional government.

But the report warned that “local agricultural production is in severe competition with foreign goods with largely lower prices” ... “mainly from Turkey and Iran, whose products have flooded Iraqi markets.”

It urged “more investments” to improve irrigation, along with water management to promote sustainability, to ensure the efficient use of resources and “mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Hamid Ismail Abdulrahman, a fellow farmer in Halabja, said low water levels in wells had impacted agricultural development.

Twice a week, the 47-year-old opens his farm to families who can buy “fresh and organic products,” from tomatoes to corn and eggplant.

He said climate change had greatly affected agriculture all over Iraq, though “southern Iraq has the lion’s share of this impact, while in the north the effect is less.”

With Iraq already witnessing record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, Mohamad warned that “if the government doesn’t act now and present a concrete plan ... the damage will be done.”

Mohamad has recently opened a small educational area on his farm, and now also receives visits from university students.

He says he hopes his initiatives will have a longer-term impact.


Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
Updated 09 August 2022

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
  • As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage

ANKARA: A series of diplomatic wins, capped by the deal to resume Ukraine’s grain exports, provides some respite for President Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey’s economic strife and offers a blueprint of his campaign strategy for elections due next year.

As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage.

“Turkey is going through its strongest period politically, militarily and diplomatically,” he told a crowd of thousands of people in northwest Turkey at the weekend, a day after holding talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.

Progress internationally contrasts with a grim economic picture at home, with inflation soaring to 79 percent and the lira languishing near record lows it hit during the most recent currency crisis in December.

Opponents blame Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, including a series of interest rate cuts despite high inflation and the sacking of three central bank governors since 2019, that have left the country running large current account deficits and reliant on external financing to support the economy.

Erdogan said the fruits of the government’s economic policies — prioritising exports, production and investment — would become clearer in the first quarter of 2023.

In the meantime, government officials and senior members of his ruling AK Party portray the president as a statesman standing against electoral rivals who are nowhere near matching his international credentials.

“Whether you like him or not, Erdogan is a leader,” a senior Turkish official said, arguing that no other international figure had the same level of contact with top global players. “There is no leader in Turkey who can replace him.”

The accord to restart exports from Ukraine, cut off since Russia’s February invasion, could ease grain shortages which have left millions of people vulnerable to hunger and driven up global prices.

Brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, it came after Erdogan secured concessions from NATO over the accession of Nordic countries and initiated a rapprochement with rival powers in the Middle East.

Erdogan also won a pledge in June from US President Joe Biden that he would support the sale of F-16 fighters jets to Turkey, after Washington blocked Ankara from buying more advanced F-35 jets because of its purchase of Russian weaponry.

Erdogan faces parliamentary and presidential elections that must be held by June 2023.

A survey by pollster Metropoll last week found a slight rise in support for his AK Party to 33.8 percent, still comfortably the most for any single party. But he faces a loose alliance of opposition parties, and polls show him trailing opposition presidential candidates.

Topping voter concerns are the state of the economy, and the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, welcomed by Turkey at the start of Syria’s conflict but increasingly seen by Turks as competitors for jobs and services.

“The government is using foreign policy as material to cover up the economic disaster it has dragged the country into, telling tales of ‘diplomatic victory’ at home,” said Erdogan Toprak, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP and senior adviser to its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Toprak said that even on the diplomatic front, Erdogan was making concessions that “damage the dignity of our country and drag it into weakness.”

“Voters are aware of the benefits of diplomacy. At times they will complain about the economy or refugees, but they will vote for Erdogan for the continuation of an effective Turkey,” an AK Party official said.


Israel concerned over Russian push to ban Jewish non-profit group

Israel concerned over Russian  push to ban Jewish non-profit group
Updated 09 August 2022

Israel concerned over Russian push to ban Jewish non-profit group

Israel concerned over Russian  push to ban Jewish non-profit group
  • Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel for alleged breaches of privacy laws

JERUSALEM: Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday about Russia’s attempt to ban the world’s biggest Jewish nonprofit group, which helps Jews move to Israel.

Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel for alleged breaches of privacy laws.

Some Israeli politicians have expressed concern that Russia may be retaliating for Israel’s criticism of its invasion of Ukraine, and about the effect that bilateral tensions might have on Russia’s own Jewish community.

Some also worry that it could damage Russian-Israeli communications on Syria, where Moscow deploys air power in support of the government and Israel has attacked what it describes as Iranian-linked military targets.

“The phone call was frank and honest. The two presidents emphasised the important areas of cooperation between Israel and Russia and agreed to remain in contact,” Herzog’s statement said.

The Kremlin said the men had agreed that contacts about the Jewish Agency would be continued by both countries.

Some 600,000 Russians are eligible to emigrate to Israel because of Jewish heritage, and officials say there has been a rise in applications since the dispute arose.

Herzog, whose post is largely symbolic, said the call with Putin had been coordinated with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon

Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon
Updated 09 August 2022

Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon

Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon
  • Hezbollah secretary-general raised prospect of a government forming without a new president being elected in September
  • Force of Change Bloc holds meeting in Parliament with eye on opposing Hezbollah

BEIRUT: Doubts were cast over the upcoming presidential election in Lebanon later this year, after Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called on Lebanese officials “to form a government that enjoys its full powers to assume its responsibilities, whether or not a new president is elected,” on Tuesday.

It was the first time Nasrallah mentioned publicly the possibility of not holding the presidential elections, raising fears of a political vacuum in the crisis-stricken country, similar to that which preceded President Michel Aoun’s election in 2016, and which lasted over two years.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati was tasked on June 23 with forming a new Cabinet, which he presented to Aoun after parliamentary elections last May.

However, Makati’s lineup did not satisfy Aoun, who said the prime minister’s choices undermined him. Communication between the two has been fraught since then, and all attempts to revive forming a government have stalled.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement he thought a resolution to the impasse at this stage would require “a miracle.”

As things stand, on Sept. 1, Parliament will turn into the elective body of the office of the president, with several rounds of voting set to take place to appoint a new head of state.

Ali Darwish, a member of Lebanon’s Parliament, told Arab News: “Each party has the right to express its opinion on the next political phase the way it deems convenient. Certainly, a government enjoying its full powers is better than a caretaker government. It is a sound demand because a government enjoying its full powers can take decisions.

“We want these elections to take place, just like other events — electing a new Parliament, and tasking the prime minister with the formation of a new government — to be carried out on time. Electing a new president for the country provides stability.”

On Monday, a meeting was held between 16 MPs from the Force of Change bloc, along with a number of other independent and opposition MPs.

The stated objective of the meeting was to “hold discussions in order to agree on a legislative agenda and coordinate on future duties, such as approving the general budget, the financial reform plan and the legislations necessary for the country.”

However, political observers believe the meeting was an early move to identify a candidate to replace Aoun.

If these MPs were able to attract other moderate colleagues, they could form a significant force in Parliament opposing Hezbollah and its allies, potentially preventing a candidate aligned with Hezbollah from being elected president.

Darwish said: “What happened in Parliament last Monday serves the democratic game and the country’s interest, and we approve of it. We do not favor confrontational diversity, as we are in a crucial phase of the economic crisis we are facing and we need everyone’s solidarity.

“Every political party in Lebanon has its own agenda. I hope the presidential elections will be held on time and the democratic game will be fully reflected.”

He added: “Complex files are awaiting the next president, such as the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the approval of an economic recovery plan, the restructuring of the public sector, and the maritime border demarcation, which requires a complete ruling system.”

Lebanese Forces MP Fadi Karam told Arab News: “Through his speech, Nasrallah insists on keeping the state incapacitated and paralyzed, so Hezbollah can impose its conditions on everyone.”

Karam said the meeting was “a positive event, and an attempt to unify the opposition in the face of Hezbollah, so we can have a majority that represents the people and faces (down) Hezbollah’s plan.”

Hadi Abou El-Hassan of the Progressive Socialist Party said: “The parliamentary elections didn’t limit decision-making to one party. This allows settlement and agreement on broad topics.”

He added: “As a patriotic Lebanese, I can’t link the fate of a country to the fate of Iran, but everyone knows that Lebanon isn’t independent in its decision-making.”


Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean

Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean
Updated 09 August 2022

Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean

Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean
  • “Our exploration and drilling in the Mediterranean is within our own sovereign dominion,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said
  • Turkey is embroiled in acrimonious disputes with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries and offshore energy rights

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s president inaugurated the country’s newest and largest undersea hydrocarbon drill ship Tuesday that he said would head for a spot northwest of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, which is not claimed by any other country.
“Our exploration and drilling in the Mediterranean is within our own sovereign dominion,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the ceremony in southern Mersin province, only to add: “We don’t need to seek permission or ratification from anyone.”
Turkey is embroiled in acrimonious disputes with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries and offshore energy rights, which triggered high tensions in the eastern Mediterranean two years ago.
Erdogan said Tuesday the new Abdulhamid Han ship would begin drilling at the Yorukler-1 well about 55 kilometers (34 miles) off the coast of Gazipasa, in Antalya province.
“Neither the puppets nor the ones who hold their strings will be able to prevent us from getting our rights in the Mediterranean,” he said, in an apparent reference to Greece and Cyprus on the one hand, and their Western allies on the other.
In the summer of 2020, tensions escalated after Turkey sent a seismic survey ship escorted by warships to an area in the eastern Mediterranean where Greece claims exclusive rights to potential undersea oil and gas deposits. Greece sent its own warships to shadow the Turkish flotilla. Both countries later conducted military exercises as a show of force.
Turkey insists that small Greek islands near the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries, and accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of the eastern Mediterranean’s resources.
The NATO allies routinely accuse each other of airspace violations. Turkey also claims that Greece has violated international treaties by militarizing eastern Aegean islands close to Turkey.
Turkey’s other drill ships — Fatih, Kanuni and Yavuz — are operating in the Black Sea where Turkey discovered natural gas reserves. All four ships are named after Ottoman sultans.