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    Mum’s the Word on Lebanon-Syria Agreements

    Government officials are keeping a series of agreements signed recently between Lebanon and Syrian close to their chests. Earlier this month a large delegation of Lebanese officials travelled to Damascus and announced they signed 18 agreements, a memorandum of understanding and a cooperation protocol, Syrian’s Day Press news agency reported.

    The news agency, and several Lebanese dailies, reported basic facts about the agreements, but exact details are scant, and the head of the delegation, Beirut MP Jean Ogassapian, refused to talk about them.

    “They haven’t published them exactly, and I don’t know where to find them,” Nassib Ghobril, head of Economic Research and Analysis with the Byblos Bank Group, told NOW Lebanon. “We’ve all read the headlines of these agreements [in the press], but we don’t know what the content is.”

    NOW Lebanon contacted the Association of Travel and Tourism Agents in Lebanon (ATTAL), as one of the agreements signed dealt with cooperation between the two neighbors on tourism.

    Ghassan Hitti, ATTAL’s office manager, said that when he called the Ministry of Tourism for more details on the agreement, and to find out how it might impact the association’s members, he was told the ministry is not yet authorized to release that information.

    International treaties, according to Article 52 of the Lebanese constitution, have to be approved by the cabinet before taking effect, and Hitti said he was told that detailed information on the agreements will only be made public after they’re approved.

    There have been no reports of these agreements being placed on the cabinet’s agenda, and indeed the ministers may take a 15-day vacation this week, An-Nahar reported.

    Bilateral agreements between Damascus and Beirut are a sensitive subject. Following Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and the Syrian occupation that came with it, the two countries signed a “Treaty of Brotherhood, Coordination and Cooperation” in 1991.

    Many Lebanese long complained that the treaty was forced on them and benefited Syria far more than it helped Beirut.

    According to Day Press, the two counties signed a protocol for nationals working in the other’s territory to avoid dual taxation and prevent evasion of income taxes. They also signed agreements of cooperation in tourism, education, higher education and scientific research. The news agency also said the ministries of Agriculture inked four agreements dealing with importation of veterinary drugs, vaccines and pesticides as well as deals on plant protection and plant quarantine.

    The neighbors’ ministers of Culture agreed to an executive program for cultural cooperation; the ministers of Justice signed a deal on transferring sentenced prisoners; the ministers of Interior signed a cooperation agreement to fight drug trafficking; the ministers of Environment signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation on environmental issues; the Transportation ministers signed a convention on maritime trade; the ministers of Health signed a cooperation protocol on exchanging pharmaceutical products; and the ministers of Economy and Commerce signed a convention on the promotion and reciprocal protection of investments and consumer protection.

    Economically, the two countries are very closely intertwined. In addition to rampant reports of smuggling between the two, there is also healthy legitimate trade and investment. According to figures from the Lebanese Customs Administration, Lebanon imported $234 million in goods from Syria, up from $178 million in 2006, and exported $225 million in goods across the border, up from $176 million in 2006.

    Bank Audi, in a research report on the Lebanese economy, said Syria was the fifth most popular destination for Lebanese exports in 2009. Ghobril, from Byblos Bank, told NOW Lebanon that foreign direct investment between the two countries is also robust.

    Byblos Bank’s Economic Research and Analysis Department compiled figures showing that between 1985 and 2009, Lebanon invested $205 million in Syria, “making Syria the sixth-largest destination of Lebanese FDI in the Arab world during the period,” Ghobril wrote in an e-mail message. “In parallel, Syrian direct investments in Lebanon totaled $411 million during the 1985 to 2009 period … making Lebanon the third-largest destination of Syrian FDI in the Arab world during the period.”

    That said, there are still complaints from some Lebanese about Syrian trade practices. For example, farmers and produce sellers frequently complain that Syria dumps fruits and vegetables into the Lebanese market, forcing local growers to lower prices and earn less profit. Those in the agricultural sector likely hope their concerns are addressed.

    The recently-signed agreements, Ghobril said, could bolster economic ties between the two countries and might address some grievances, but it will be important to watch if and how the agreements are implemented.

    “Historically, agreements are one thing and their application is something different,” he said. “Some of them have not been applied all together; some of them have been partially applied. Hopefully this time they’ll be fully implemented as agreements that will be beneficial for the Lebanese economy.”

    Matt NASH
    NOW Lebanon
    28.07.2010

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