January 18, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1432

Debate In Lebanon On Inviting Syria To Arab Economic Summit In Beirut, Normalizing Relations With It

January 18, 2019 | By C. Jacob*
Lebanon, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1432

The Arab League Economic Summit, due to take place in Beirut on January 20, 2019, is to deal with the economic crisis in Lebanon and the reconstruction of Syria, among other issues. On January 16, the Arab Private Sector Forum convened in Beirut, with the participation of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri, to draft recommendations for the summit,[1] and on January 19, one day before the summit, a convention of Arab foreign ministers is to take place. Lebanese presidential media adviser and summit spokesman Rafiq Shalala said that preparations for the summit have been completed.[2] Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania, Kuwait, Qatar, 'Oman and the Palestinian Authority have all confirmed their participation, but most of them have announced they would not be represented by their heads of state but by lower-level officials.  

Syria, which was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011, several months after the outbreak of the crisis there, due to the Assad regime's violent suppression of the protests against it, was not invited to the summit. However, in the recent weeks, in light of the regime's victory in the Syria war and the shift in some of the Arab states' attitudes towards it – expressed inter alia by the UAE and Bahrain reopening their embassies in Damascus – a public debate arose in Lebanon on the issue of Syria and whether it was time to normalize relations with it and perhaps even invite it to the summit. The demands to invite Syria were voiced by its supporters in Lebanon, chiefly Amal and Hizbullah, whereas the rival faction, the March 14 Forces, opposed this on the grounds that there was no reason to normalize relations with the Assad regime when it has not changed its attitude towards Lebanon or its own people. During his recent tour of Morocco, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil worked behind the scenes to promote the inclusion of Syria in the summit.[3]After his efforts failed, Lebanese President Michel 'Aoun announced that "the summit will take place as scheduled" and that "Lebanon is ready to welcome the Arab leaders."[4] Conversely, Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri called to postpone the summit on the grounds that it must not be held without Syria, and also because Lebanon has not yet elected a new government and the interim government is not authorized to decide the issue of Syria's inclusion. He stated further than he would not attend the summit if Syria was not present. Later he also mentioned, as another reason to postpone the summit, his opposition to the participation of Libya in it. [5]

It should be noted that, according to a January 16 report in the Al-Akhbar daily, the U.S. has conveyed to FM Bassil, through a secret telegram as well as through the American embassy in Beirut, that it opposed Lebanon inviting Syria to the summit and even threatened it with sanctions if it took part in rehabilitating Syria.[6]  If true, this may explain why President 'Aoun and FM Bassil, while supporting Syria's participation in the summit, have not taken the step of inviting it.

Logo of the 2019 Arab Economic Summit in Beirut

This report reviews the positions of the various parties in Lebanon on inviting Syria to the summit and on normalizing relations with it.

March 14 Forces Oppose Normalizing Relations With Syria, Including It In Summit

The main party opposed to Syria's presence in the summit is the March 14 Forces, headed by Al-Mustaqbal faction leader, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri, who has accused Syria of being behind the murder of his father, Rafiq Al-Hariri. His allies, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, and Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, share his position. Founded in 2005 in reaction against the Syrian presence and influence in Lebanon, the March 14 Forces opposes Syria's participation in the summit on the grounds that Lebanon must not change its position towards it as long as it continues to deny the rights of the Syrian people. This movement also expressed a concern that the Assad regime would disrupt the summit, and argued that, in any case, the authority to invite participants to the summit rests with the Arab League, not with the host country, Lebanon.

The March 14 Forces also expressed opposition to normalizing relations with the Syrian regime, due to its murderous conduct towards the Syrian people. This movement's hostility towards the Syrian regime was exacerbated by the fact that in December 2018, an institution affiliated with this regime issued a list of figures and organizations it accused of financing terror, which included Sa'd Al-Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea and other March 14 Forces members.[7] The movement described this list as "part of the [Syrian] regime's war against its opponents in Lebanon" and its retaliatory measures against them.[8]

Al-Mustaqbal Faction Members: There Can Be No Normalization With Syrian Regime Before It Recognizes The Rights Of The Syrian People     

Sources in the Al-Mustaqbal faction told the Lebanese Al-Jumhouriyya daily: "There will be no openness towards Syria under the Bashar Al-Assad regime, unless this is preceded by a just and viable political settlement that will grant the Syrian people its rights and its freedoms and acknowledge the harm that the regime has inflicted upon the [Syrian] people over the years. This settlement must be [reached] under Arab and international sponsorship and lead to the establishment of a democratic regime in Syria. Any talk of normalization or openness between us and the Assad regime in the [current] anomalous situation is nothing but deception or [one of the] illusions which some of [Assad's] allies invent for various purposes. In any case, the openness will be only towards the Syrian state and people, not towards the regime... It cannot be denied that it is in Lebanon's best interest to remove the barriers between it and Syria, on all levels, for there will be no political stability without establishing relations with Syria under the aegis of international law, and there will be no healthy [Lebanese] economy without the Syrian market, which is the gateway to the rest of the Middle East markets. Furthermore, there can be no solution to the refugee crisis except the return of the refugees to Syria... It is true that Sa'd Al-Hariri, like other businessmen, including Lebanese ones, personally wishes to invest in the greatest rebuilding project in Arab history [i.e., the rebuilding of Syria], but this will occur only in accordance with the proper guidelines and the values for which Al-Mustaqbal and its allies in the March 14 Forces have been fighting for years."[9]

Opposition to Syria's participation in the summit was expressed by March 14 Forces secretary Fares Sa'id, who said to the Lebanese government: "You can invite whomever you wish; you are in charge. [But] if [you] decide, on your own or in coordination with the Arab League, to invite [Syria], we will hold demonstrations in Beirut against you, against the Arab League and against Assad."[10]

Former Minister Ashraf Rifi: If Syria Attends The Summit It Will Be A Disgrace

Former minister Ashraf Rifi likewise came out against Syria and the resistance axis, saying: "A Lebanese court identified Syrian intelligence as being behind the bombings at the [Sunni] Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques [in Tripoli on August 23, 2013], and we will not allow to circumvent the court's ruling. The victims' blood will be on our conscience, for including Syria in the Beirut summit will be tantamount to murdering them all over again, and we will not have this... It will be a disgrace to invite the Syrian regime to [attend] the Beirut summit when justice has not been done... The sabotaging of the formation of the [Lebanese] government and the threats to torpedo the economic summit reflect [Syria's] patronage of Lebanon and its institutions. The Iran-Syria axis is trying to keep Lebanon in a large prison, isolated from its Arab surroundings and the international community, and to turn it into a failed country."[11]

Walid Jumblatt: No To Normalization With Syria, Which Is Sabotaging The Formation Of The Lebanese Government

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt objected to normalizing relations with Syria also due to its intervention in the forming of the Lebanese government, as he described it. "There is an organized campaign by Syria's mouthpieces to torpedo the formation of the government by demanding [to appoint a Sunni minister] from Al-Tashawwur [a Sunni faction of the March 8 Forces][12] or demanding more ministers, or by means of other weak excuses, all in order to disrupt the economic summit."[13] The media officer of Jumblatt's party, Rami Rayyes, clarified: "We have said many times that normalizing relations with the [Syrian] regime is undesirable, even if some formal channels [of communication] with it remain open, in some way or other. We shall wait and see what the position of the Arab states is."[14]

Samir Geagea: The Demand To Normalize Relations Is Intended To Renew Syria's Influence In Lebanon

Sources in Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces party assessed that Syria is unlikely to be reinstated in the Arab League any time soon, adding that the Arabs will not benefit from its reinstatement or from its participation in the economic summit. They added: "Syria is no longer the same country that controlled Lebanon in 1990-2005, because today circumstances are different. There is a Syrian embassy and Lebanon and a Lebanese embassy in Syria, and the cooperation [between the two countries] is minimal, and will remain so. The Lebanese regime will not return to be what it was, and will not be able to interfere in Lebanon and impose its sponsorship on it."[15]

Samir Geagea himself expressed opposition to normalizing relations with Syria already in September 2018, saying: "We have recently heard voices calling to restore normal relations with Syria. Can anyone show me that there is a legitimate state in Syria, which the majority of Syrians regard as their state and with which we can establish full relations?... The essence of the proposal is not to normalize the relations in order to return the Syrian refugees to their homeland but rather [to normalize them] in order to return the Syrian regime to Lebanon. We may end up losing twice: once by having to keep the displaced Syrians in Lebanon, and a second time by renewing the Syrian influence over Lebanon, God forbid..."[16]

In a sarcastic article on the Lebanese Forces Party website, journalist Vera Bu Munsif wrote that inviting Syria to the summit would be an act of self-degradation: "It will be a disgrace if we have to invite him [Bashar Al-Assad] to Lebanon, seat him at the head of the table and organize a large popular welcome for him, as is done for highly distinguished guests. What a disgrace. [Let's] prepare squares, platforms and television screens to [receive] him... What a disgrace. [Let's] open the gates and clasp him to our bosom, as he held us for 40 years in his bosom, which still serves as our grave... What a disgrace. [Let's] open champagne bottles in his honor and hold his glass aloft, for he has filled his vessels with our good and pure blood... That man, Bashar Al-Assad and no other, placed several Lebanese leaders on a terror list several days ago. That man, infamous throughout the world and labeled as a terrorist [himself] for feeding the children of Syria with chemical agents, has labeled Lebanese [leaders as terrorists]... Even worse, there is talk of inviting him to attend the economic summit in Lebanon... O world, how can Lebanon agree to degrade itself by welcoming a man who claims to be a [state] official when he is merely the head of a regime that is murdering us and the Syrian people[?]... The Lebanese state must declare, with the voice of the Lebanese people, that it objects to hosting Bashar Al-Assad at the summit out of respect for the Lebanese entity and for all the Lebanese."[17]    

March 8 Forces Calls For Normalizing Relations With Syria And Inviting It To Economic Summit

In contrast to the March 14 Forces, the rival camp, the March 8 Forces, sided with Syria, and its officials called on Lebanon's leadership to invite it to the economic summit, or at least to call on the Arab League to do so, as a step forward in rescinding Syria's suspension from the Arab League. The camp, which includes Hizbullah, the Amal movement headed by Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, and the Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, President Aoun's son in law, stated that inviting Syria would strengthen Lebanon and serve its interests, and that Syria should not be excluded from the summit, which would focus, inter alia, on its rehabilitation.   

Lebanese Economy Minister Raed Khoury: Normalizing Relations With Syria Will Benefit Lebanon's Economy

Hizbullah associates in Lebanon called for normalizing relations with the Syrian regime, and pointed out the benefit this would have for Lebanon. For example, Lebanese Economy Minister Raed Khoury, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, told Hizbullah's Al-Ahed website: "The calm in Syria, the opening of the gate to its rehabilitation, and Lebanon's participation in it are an opportunity for Lebanon – [an opportunity] that is more important than the [April 2018] conference [in Paris].[18] It will have many ramifications for the Lebanese markets and for the local economy, [and] this will draw investors from the private sector, which is the nerve center of the Lebanese economy, and will create employment opportunities. The rehabilitation will arouse all the sectors in Lebanon and will lead to an economic awakening in it, since many countries that participate in rehabilitating [other] countries that have been destroyed experience economic awakening themselves." Khoury went on to call for establishing free trade zones at the Lebanon-Syria border that would, he said, lead to an influx of investors and would grease the wheels of the Lebanese economy.[19]

Hizbullah: Failure To Invite Syria Would Be A Mistake; Lebanon Has An Interest In Inviting It

In its explanation why Syria should be included in the summit, the Hizbullah faction in the Lebanese parliament set out the need for unity in the Arab world: "Inviting Syria to the Arab economic summit in Lebanon will strengthen Lebanon and serve its strategic interests – particularly in light of the [current] positive atmosphere in which Arab countries are making haste to return to Syria. Lebanon is [Syria's] closest neighbor, and has [the closest] interest, and therefore it must take the lead in initiatives to strengthen this atmosphere."[20]

Hizbullah sources even warned that "failure to invite Syria will be considered a mistake, like the [mistake] of suspending Syria's Arab League membership [in the first place]. Lebanon, as the summit's host, must play a central role in uniting the Arab families by holding a complete Arab summit from which no Arab state is missing – and if this does not happen, [the summit] will be lame."[21]

Parliamentary Speaker Berri: I Will Not Participate In Any Arab Conference To Which Syria Is Not Invited

The most emphatic call for inviting Syria to the summit came from parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who at first said that inviting Syria to the summit was possible if the Arab foreign ministers met beforehand and decided to rescind the suspension of Syria's Arab League membership. Berri explained that Lebanon has an interest in Syria's presence at the summit, particularly in light of the fact that there is now rapprochement with Syria on the part of Arab countries and other countries in the world.[22] Amal MPs also reiterated that inviting Syria to the summit was a "national obligation" and some of them even warned that "there will be no summit without Syria."[23]

Indeed, Foreign Minister Bassil attempted to persuade the Arab countries and Arab League representatives to approve inviting Syria. It was reported that at a January 6, 2019 conference of representatives of Arab states in the Arab League, Lebanon officially requested that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad be invited to the summit.[24] Apparently, however, because of disagreement on the matter among the Arab countries, the matter was not discussed at the conference, and Minister Bassil's efforts to persuade the Arab countries to invite Assad failed.[25]

This failure, along with Lebanese President Michel Aoun's announcement that the economic summit would be held regardless on the same date in Lebanon,[26] enraged Berri, who countered by announcing that he had no intention of participating in any Arab conference that excluded Syria. Berri said: "Inviting Syria to the economic summit is a given, and what is not a given is that a conference would be held without Syria. All of Syria is in Lebanon. Where are there one and a half million displaced Syrians [today]? Furthermore, Lebanon has an embassy in Syria, and has not severed relations with it. What must Lebanon do? Speaking for myself, I will [also] not participate in any [future] conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union where Syria is not present." With regard to the argument that Lebanon was adhering to the Arab League resolution to suspend Syria, he said: "They [the Arabs] are returning to Syria – the Emirates, Sudan, and Bahrain. Are they doing this because of an Arab League resolution? Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is not preventing a revival of relations. When the Arab League decided to exclude Syria, I called it unconstitutional and absolutely null and void because it was not by consensus [as required] by the Arab League. If even a single country was opposed, the resolution would be invalid. There were countries that expressly opposed this – Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria – which means that the resolution [is from the outset] invalid."[27]

A few days later, Berri demanded a two-month postponement for the economic summit. He said: "My position on the subject of the economic summit is not aimed against President Michel 'Aoun at all, and it is stupid to describe it as such. I have expressed this position so that the summit will not be pathetic and so that heads will not be missing from it, because if heads of state do not attend, the summit will lose its importance and will be harmed. I am requesting a two-month postponement because I have firm information that Tunisia, which will host the Arab summit in March, is going to invite Syria to it, whether or not [Syria] returns to the Arab League. Syria will also be invited to the March Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Jordan... It is unreasonable for Syria to be absent from a summit discussing its rehabilitation."[28]

In the spirit of the Amal leader Berri's objections, Qassem Swed, chairman of Amal's NBN TV, announced that the channel would not be covering the economic summit because Syria was not invited.[29]

President 'Aoun, Foreign Minister Bassil Support Normalization With Syria And Inviting It To Summit, But Are Not Deviating From The Arab League Suspension

Lebanese President Michel 'Aoun, who is known to be close to Syrian President Al-Assad and known to support normalization with Syria, and his son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is part of the March 8 camp, hold similar positions. During a visit to Lebanon's Maronite Christian Patriarch Bishara Rai, 'Aoun said:  "We need to be partners in [Syria's] rehabilitation, as we were partners in the victory over terrorism. It is inappropriate to exclude Syria from the Arab summit. It is not Lebanon that does the inviting, but it can initiate, and act, so that Syria will be part of the Arab League. The position of [the Free Patriotic Movement], as a political group, is known: we have not severed relations with Syria."[30]

Likewise, according to reports, Basil's contacts in recent weeks with Arab countries and Arab League representatives aimed at obtaining a summit invitation for Syria were also at the request of President 'Aoun. But after these efforts failed, as noted, 'Aoun announced that the summit would be held as planned in Beirut. Bassil's associates explained that it was not up to him to invite Syria, because that was the purview of the Arab League – the host state could only issue the actual invitations.[31] It was also reported that although 'Aoun and Bassil wished to invite Syria, they would not do so without Arab backing.[32]


* C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 17, 2019.

[2] Al-Hayat (Dubai), January 7, 2019.

[3] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), January 9, 2019.

[4], January 7, 2019.

[5], January 11, 2019. The tension between Amal and Libya is due to the Libyan authorities' disinclination to investigate the disappearance of Moussa Al-Sadr, the supreme leader of Lebanon's Shi'ites and founder of the Amal movement, in 1978 during a visit to Libya at the invitation of its president at the time, Mu'ammar Qadhafi. After the Amal movement expressed opposition to Libya's participation in the economic summit, the security apparatuses at the Beirut airport denied entry to several Libyan businessmen who were to attend the summit, and Shi'ite Amal supporters tore down Libya's flag outside the venue where the summit is to be held (, January 14, 2019). In response, Libya's Supreme Council of State asked the Foreign Ministry to suspend diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and demanded that the Arab League bar Lebanon from all league events until its government assumed responsibility for the offense against the flag and pledged that such incidents would not recur (, January 14, 2019). Libya has also announced that it will not attend the economic summit (, January 14, 2019).

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 16, 2019.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 29, 2018.

[8], January 2, 2019; Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 4, 2019.

[9] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebananon), January 9, 2019.

[10], January 4, 2019.

[11] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 14, 2019.

[13], January 5, 2019.

[14] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 3, 2019.

[15] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), January 6, 2019.

[16], September 10, 2018.

[17], January 2, 2019.

[18] At the April 6, 2018 conference in Paris, aimed at rallying international support for an investment program to boost Lebanon's economy, Lebanon won pledges of over $11 billion., April 6, 2018.

[19], December 29, 2018.

[20], January 3, 2019.

[21], January 4, 2019.

[22], January 5, 2019.

[23], January 7, 2019; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 6, 2019;, January 5, 2019.

[24], January 5, 2019;, January 7, 2019.The Lebanese Al-Jumhouriyya daily reported that Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri had stopped Foreign Minister Bassil from appealing to the Arab League Secretary General with a request for an urgent meeting of the Arab Foreign Ministers Council to reinstate Syria's membership in the league and invite it to the summit (Al-Jumhouriyya,  Lebanon, January 18, 2019).

[25] Al-Hayat (Dubai), January 7, 2019.

[26], January 7, 2019.

[27] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), January 8, 2019.

[28] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 11, 2019.

[29] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 11, 2019.

[30] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 5, 2019.

[31], January 6, 2019; Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), January 9, 2019.

[32], January 8, 2019.

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