BEIRUT: Efforts to resolve a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Syria appear to have foundered after Damascus rebuffed attempts by President Michel Aoun to set up official talks.
Aoun discussed the dispute with President Bashar Assad in a telephone call at the weekend, before instructing Elias Bou Saab, the deputy speaker of parliament, to head a Lebanese delegation to Damascus.
Syria on Tuesday rejected the delegation, however, saying that Lebanon had failed to send an “official letter” and that its own negotiators were too busy. The rebuff leaves the president without a resolution six days before the end of his term.
Ali Abdul Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, said after meeting Aoun on Tuesday: “Lebanon did not send an official letter to set the dates for ministers and officials in Syria to meet the Lebanese delegation in a timely manner.
“The Syrian authorities thus apologized for not being able to receive the Lebanese delegation because Syrian officials already have prior engagements.”
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry was separately told by Syria that “the timing is not appropriate for such a visit.”
The sea boundary dispute emerged last year after Syria granted a license to a Russian company to explore an area claimed by Lebanon.
Syria reportedly wants to tie any agreement to the identity of the Shebaa Farms area, which is claimed by both Damascus and Beirut, as well as Israel.
Ali, whom Aoun awarded on Tuesday the National Order of the Cedar, said his country had “always facilitated the outstanding issues between Lebanon and Syria and there is a treaty of brotherhood and cooperation between the two countries.”
He requested that “the concerned leaders and ministers meet.”
Meanwhile, the Lebanese General Security service announced hundreds of Syrian refugees would voluntarily go back to their country on Wednesday, in the latest round of a returns initiative that began in 2017.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the service’s chief, said that returning Syrians to their homeland was a “national duty that we must fulfill.”
“There are around 2.8 million Syrians in Lebanon, including refugees; 42 percent of prisoners in Lebanon are Syrians, which puts additional pressure on us,” he said, adding that over half a million had already voluntarily returned since 2017.
“Lebanon rejects the way some humanitarian organizations try to dictate their will to us,” he said.
“We will not submit to pressure because the interest of the Lebanese people is first and foremost, and we will not force any refugee to return. This is our principle and we seek to ease the burden on Lebanon.”
However, an official at a refugee camp in Arsal told Arab News that some who had registered to return had “changed their mind for fear of what might await them.”
Lisa Abu Khaled, the media official at the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, told Arab News: “Lebanon says that it has 1.5 million Syrian refugees, while the number of those registered with us is 825,000, and we know that there are many more.”
Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar said that the return scheme was “safe and there is no pressure; be it a small or a large number of refugees returning. We do not care about the numbers; we rather focus on ensuring a safe return."
About 700 refugees are expected to return to Syria on Wednesday. The Lebanese hope to process around 15,000 every month.
“We want to reiterate to the international community that we are a sovereign state," said Hajjar. "Lebanon has provided enough support on the financial and health levels. Today, we no longer have the means to bear such expenses. We have become a poor country, and the only solution is for refugees to return home.”
During a visit to a camp in Arsal, Hajjar told Syrian residents that they were “going back according to a mechanism agreed upon between the two countries, and we assume the responsibility of ensuring that everyone who returns to Syria will be safe.”
Syria meanwhile said that it had “spared no effort to facilitate the return” of refugees, including enacting a law that pardons “terrorists” not wanted for murder, issuing amnesty decrees and starting a reconciliation process for regime opponents.
Lebanon abides by the 2011 decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership due to the regime’s brutal suppression of popular protests.