MESOP NEWS PREDICTION : A COMMON MARKET AS THE SOLUTION FOR MIDDLE EAST / WITH OR WITHOUT ISRAEL ? – Aoun calls for ‘Levantine common market’ and safe return of Syrian refugees

Aoun: Hezbollah linked to “regional crisis” / AL MONITOR

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an “economic common Levantine market” to support economic and social policies to combat regional poverty and extremism. He also spoke about the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and other countries, saying, “It would be better if the United Nations assisted them in returning to their homeland rather than helping them remain in camps.”

Aoun had told Al-Monitor prior to his speech, “If the international community wants to help them [Syrian refugees], they may help them in Syria. It will be more economic. The cost will be lower than in Lebanon. That’s what we are asking now from the international community: not to help us, but to help the people go back to their homes.”

The Lebanese president acknowledged the difficulties of assuring the safe return of refugees while insisting that planning for their return should begin immediately. Displaced Syrians, he said, should not face the same plight as Palestinian refugees, who have remained in UN camps for decades.

Aoun spoke expansively of a regional approach to combat poverty and extremism, an “economic common Levantine market” under UN auspices, as well as the establishment of a center for tolerance, coexistence, forgiveness and peace, based in Lebanon.

Aoun rejected US calls to have the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) take on an expanded role to curb Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon, saying, “UNIFIL is not a military force to be used; they are observers. We cannot give them a combat mission or a mission to inspect the homes of the people to see if they have weapons or not. They are there to observe the borders of Lebanon and Israel and to count how many times Israeli aircraft cross Lebanese borders.”

He added, “Hezbollah has become a component of the regional crisis. If we have to solve the problem of Hezbollah, it would be within a general solution to the Middle East crisis, especially in Syria.”

Linkages involving the Syria crisis, the role of Hezbollah and regional diplomacy have been consistent themes in Al-Monitor’s reporting and commentary. We wrote over 3½ years ago in this column that “a calming of the situation in Syria would have direct consequences for Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. You can’t solve Lebanon, or Hezbollah, without solving Syria. Gen. Michel Aoun, the head of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement and a key broker of the deal this week that allowed formation of a new Lebanese government, began discussions of a plan to assimilate Hezbollah’s forces into the Lebanese army. This deal could be picked up again, at the right time, and might facilitate progress on development of energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, where cooperation is stymied in part because Lebanon and Israel do not have relations.” Aoun was elected president on Oct. 31 of last year.