Lebanese Government divided over trip to Damascus trade fair
Lebanese ministers have visited Syria in a sign of possible talks over links with the Assad regime’s crippled economy.
The ministers, from Hezbollah and the Shia Amal party, travelled for the Damascus International Fair, which opens this week for the first time since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
But the trip has already divided the governing coalition in Beirut. The Government has refused to sanction the visit, with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri declaring that any minister going to Syria does so in a personal capacity.
However, Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan — a Hezbollah member — insists that the delegation are official representatives. Hassan said they will meet regime officials:
The historic Syrian-Lebanese ties…will continue and we as Lebanese have every interest in them continuing. We are reactivating the trade and economic ties between the two countries.
The Assad regime’s Economy Minister said the visit is “a chance for joint action, for reinforcing cooperation, whether it’s in terms of investment or of trade”.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a Sunday speech, pressed the Government to strengthen relations with Assad, citing security interest and agricultural, gas, and oil exports.
In contrast Samir Geagea, a prominent Lebanese Christian politician, said the visit to Syria would “shake Lebanon’s political stability and put Lebanon in the Iranian camp”
In a speech on Sunday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pressed the Lebanese state to strengthen relations with Assad’s government. Nasrallah said Lebanon needed its larger neighbor for its security interests, as well as agricultural, gas and oil exports.
Lebanon’s Saudi-allied Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has said any minister who goes to Syria does so in a personal capacity.
Samir Geagea, a leading Lebanese Christian politician and longstanding opponent of Hezbollah and Syrian influence in Lebanon, said the visit to Syria would “shake Lebanon’s political stability and put Lebanon in the Iranian camp”.
The Government has maintained a policy of “dissociation” since 2012 to avoid involvement in the Syrian conflict. But Hezbollah has long tested this with its essential backing of the Assad regime, sending in thousands of fighters from 2013 to prop up the regime military and working with Iran over political support.
Hezbollah has also carried out an offensive in northern Lebanon in the last month to force the jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and rebel factions back into Syria. Thousands of Syrian civilians who had been living in refugee camps have also been moved back to northwest Syria or opposition-held suburbs of Damascus.
More than a million Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon.
Foreign Minister Receives Egyptian Delegation
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also hailed Egyptian participation in the Damascus trade fair, receiving a delegation from Cairo on Thursday.
Moallem insisted that the holding of the fair showed “evidence of the strength and recovery” of the Syrian State.
Video: The Local Elections in Saraqeb
Defying the narratives of either capitulation to the Assad regime or domination by “extremists” in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, a short film describes the July elections in the town of Saraqeb, including activities for civic society and voter education:
— Syrian Coalition (@SyrCoalition) August 17, 2017
Worries Over Aid in Idlib Province Amid Jihadist Operations
Concern is rising in Idlib Province in northwest Syria over the fate of aid, amid the surge in the area of the jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Last month HTS — led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the faction formerly linked to Al Qa’eda — seized territory from the rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham, encircling the key Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
While the crossing was handed over to civilian control, worries continue that HTS could close the crossing or seize goods.
Fuad Sayed Issa, a spokesman for the Syrian NGO Banafsaj, said a German aid group that had been funneling assistance from Turkey through Bab al Hawa has suspended its shipments: “They told us to get the items another way or to buy them from a different area.”
Aid agencies say HTS has demanded a portion of aid moving through territory which its control and has required Syrian agencies to seek permission to operate.
The amount of aid that must be turned over “depends on the number of checkpoints you have to pass and what you’re carrying,” said one aid worker. “Normally for food [Nusra] don’t take so much….They’re merciful. But medicines are highly taxed.”
Local journalist Saleem Omar said HTS had recently commandeered several ambulances from a donation of 88 vehicles provided by the UK Government. He added that Free Syrian Army units are forced to give HTS up to 15% of the military aid they receive.
Michael Ratney, the US State Department’s top official for Syria, said earlier this month, “We hope to find channels that enable us to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people without passing through the hands of the Nusra Front and the crossings that have fallen into its hands.”
Rebels: We’ll Swap Pilot of Downed Jet for Detained Colonel
Rebels have offered to exchange the pilot of a regime warplane for a colonel who has been detained by the Assad regime for almost six years.
“We are ready to swap the pilot of the Syrian regime, whose plane was shot down in the Syrian desert on Tuesday, for Hussein Harmoush,” said Saad al-Haj, the spokesman of the rebel faction Jaish Osoud al-Sharqia.
The rebels said they shot down the warplane, identified as a MiG-21 or MiG-23, in eastern Suweida Province in southeast Syria. The regime military confirmed the plane crashed, but would not give a cause and said an investigation has been launched.
The pilot was photographed, face bruised, in the custody of rebels.
Harmoush, one of the first officers to defect from Syrian Army in 2011, was one of the founders of the Free Officers Movement near Jisr al-Shughour in northwest Syria. However, he was soon abducted by regime operatives from Hatay Province in southeastern Turkey and taken back to Damascus.