Swamped by refugees

A feeble state authority leaves Lebanon vulnerable to the spillover effect of the savage civil war raging in Syria

hezbollah521 (photo credit: Khalil Hassan/Reuters)
(photo credit: Khalil Hassan/Reuters)
Mustafah never imagined that he would ever have to leave his paternal hometown of Al Qusayr in Syria, where he had spent all 70 years of his life. A herder with a small piece of land and a large family, he fled with the women and children in his household, as life in his city, now an open battlefield, became “impossible to endure.”
Al Qusayr has become a key city, with battles raging in the area between the armed opposition and the Syrian government forces.
Because of its location on a road that links to Damascus and is also the main supply route from Lebanon for the opposition forces, Qusayr is a strategically important point of control for both sides.
“We are caught amidst this war that is the result of a government that made every aspect of life difficult, from owning an animal, to tilling the land, to burying our own.
We have never been free to do anything,” Mustafah says.
Will the impending return home happen anytime soon? “Ma baaraf [I don’t know],” he says with a shrug, signaling an end to the conversation for the time being.
His eyes get misty as he stands in silence, forlorn and looking towards the horizon, in the direction of his hometown that is across the border and visible to the naked eye.
This is the view from Ersal in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon that straddles the border with Al Qusayr on the other side. Lebanon and Syria share an intertwined history that predates their formation as separate states.
Since this conversation almost seven months ago, Mustafa and his family remain stranded between two undesirable worlds with an addition, his newest grandchild, who is registered nowhere.
Since their inception, Syria and Lebanon have been viewed as two fraternal states, with one asserting its size and influence over the other. Their relationship has been strained, tested and nearly destroyed by the larger sibling’s refusal to recognize the sovereignty of the smaller one.
This sums up the decades-long story of Syrian-Lebanese relations. The fact that full diplomatic ties were only reestablished as recently as 2008 is illustrative of the fragility of the relationship and Lebanon’s preoccupation with the instability that has taken over its dominant neighbor.
Strained might have been the case at best, but the sibling states are far from estranged.
Despite decades of civil war and a 29-yearlong occupation by Syrian military that ended only in March 2005, Lebanon continues to share intrinsic economic and political ties with Syria that are based on geographical proximity as well as a shared religiouscultural history. The two Levantine states are inextricably bound.
Repercussions of the unabated Syrian conflict that started with anti-government protests in the spring of 2011 have resonated in different parts of Lebanon, from Tripoli in the north to Ersal in the east, Beirut in the west and Naqoura in the south.
Resignations, political vacuums and deadlocks are not new to Lebanon with its complex consociational political system that has proven inept in bridging deep-rooted rivalries between the different factions.
However, given the recent resignation by Najib Mikati from the post of prime minister, an electoral law that is deemed controversial, and parliamentary elections scheduled for June, the absence of a government could further exacerbate rivalries between the different political camps.
Security related agreements, especially the appointment of high-level officials to key posts and delineating a domestic electoral law agreeable to all sides, are the most pressing items on the political agenda for Lebanon.
The main challenge is the lack of a unifying authority with effective control over domestic and cross-border relations. There is currently no central power to lead efforts to mitigate rivalries, establish law and order, counter infiltration and tackle refugee issues. This lack of a state authority inevitably makes Lebanon more vulnerable to the spillover effect, Antoun Issa, editor at the Beirut-based “Al Monitor,” explains to The Jerusalem Report.
David Schenker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy provides his prognosis of the continuing deadlock in Syria and its impact on neighboring Lebanon to The Report. “Even without Syria, it would have been difficult for Lebanese factions to agree on an electoral law. The sectarian nature of the war in Syria accentuates these cleavages in Lebanon, further complicating this task.”
Historical ties of the different Lebanese political parties to opposing sides in Syria have pitted them against each other in terms of regional geopolitics, leading to diverging political stances in relation to Syria. This lack of unity has also fuelled domestic disagreements in countering spillover effects from the other side of the border, such as tackling border instability, refugees, economic relations with neighboring states and the extent of involvement in the Syrian crisis.
In light of increasing reports of Hezbollah fighters battling alongside pro-government forces in Syria, tensions have risen within Lebanon in relation to the Taif Agreement, signed in 1989, as part of a national reconciliation process to normalize sectarian relations following a protracted civil war that lasted for 15 years. The accord called for the disarmament of all national and non-national militias. As a “resistance force” in the south, Hezbollah was allowed to maintain its arms.
But, in recent years, Christian and Sunni political parties have called for the disarmament of Hezbollah, especially following the May 2008 conflict when Hezbollah showed its military might by effectively seizing control of West Beirut within a day.
Some Leba nese analysts suggest a security pact with Hezbollah as a means of securing the borders against a Syrian spillover. But this view is in stark contrast to the demands of Lebanese factions headed by the March 14 coalition that have called for complete disarmament of Hezbollah for any plausibility of a pact.
“Hezbollah in a way has provided stability for the country in recent years. On the other hand, its interests as a party and its ties to Iran have been in conflict with Lebanese interests at times. But, withdrawing weapons right now will create a vacuum,” explains Issa.
Some 400,000 Syrian refugees are currently registered in Lebanon, a country with a population of about four million. This is the equivalent of 1 out of 10 people. About 3,000 refugees are added to the books every day. Children make up more than half of this population. At the current rate, Lebanon anticipates over 1 million refugees by the end of 2013. These official estimates provided by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in Lebanon do not include Syrians who have migrated to Lebanon without registering with the UN, hoping that they would return to their home cities and towns once the situation normalized.
According to the latest estimates by the Norwegian Refugee Council, there are 420,000 registered Syrian refugees, 40,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled Syria since the start of the conflict, 300,000-400,000 migrant workers who are employed as nonskilled laborers, and an additional 100,000- 200,000 civilians from well-off backgrounds who are mostly in Beirut. Another 500,000 are expected to arrive between June and December. This adds up to a total of 1.5 million Syrians.
The numbers are staggering and constitute proportions that, if unimpeded and with indefinite stay, will dramatically change the demographic constitution of Lebanon.
At a press conference held in Geneva on April 12, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming expressed grave concerns over safe repatriation of refugees. “UNHCR is very concerned that refugees are returning to areas blighted by shortages of food, lack of fuel and electricity and limited services. The security situation is volatile, with reports of artillery shells and mortars being fired into villages where refugees are trying to reclaim their homes and lives in.”
Given this scenario, safe passage of refugees and a return to towns and villages with any semblance of calm do not appear feasible options.
The burden by default has fallen on the shoulder of Lebanon, a small country with limited physical and financial resources to accommodate refugees the numbers of which have grown exponentially over recent months due to the exacerbating conflict.
Given Lebanon’s fragile confessional system that is based on sectarian representation, the inclusion of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslim refugees is viewed as a demographic threat.
Schenker goes as far as saying, “It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario à la Iraq and the Samara shrine attack in 2006, where Sunni Muslim militants target a Shia mosque – perhaps in Dahiya – touching off renewed sectarian fighting in Lebanon.”
But, so far, despite inflammatory rhetoric between the political camps, the government has maintained a largely dissociated position to prevent being embroiled in the chaos. Issa points out, “The major political factions do not want a civil war. There is a general consensus on this and the government is functional, although at a poor level.”
Many analysts like Issa maintain that despite the extreme divisions between the different sects, instances of Sunni Muslims taking refuge in Christian towns in Syria are not uncommon, proving that refugees are not necessarily sectarian in their outlook.
With more diverse groups, in terms of geography, political affiliations and economic backgrounds, entering Lebanon over the course of a two-year period, views towards the Syrian conflict are by no means homogenous across the board.
Issa also advocates the plausibility of “progressive engagement” with the refugees by traditionally rival groups, such as Hezbollah, in order to prevent these new impoverished and desperate communities from becoming alienated and resentful. This could be a pragmatic measure to pre-empt a scenario in which the refugee camps become breeding grounds for groups such as the Al Nusra Front that was formed in Syria in 2012, and has extended its base to Saida, Lebanon.
Despite being classified as a developing economy, Lebanon is a unique case due to the destruction of its social fabric, economic backbone and basic infrastructure following decades of a debilitating civil war. But its greatest weakness has been the lack of stable governments capable of dictating a lasting economic agenda for the country and implementing long-term plans.
As a result, significant inequity persists between different regions of the country.
According to UNDP estimates, “almost 300,000 individuals in Lebanon are unable to meet their food and non-food basic needs, and around 28.5 percent of the population are below the upper poverty line.”
The country, especially its capital, Beirut, has been relatively stable over the past two years. Yet spates of border skirmishes, clashes in the conflict-riddled areas of Tripoli, and the Beirut car-bombing incident in October 2012 that killed security official Wissam Al Hassan have sufficed in decreased tourism and trade with the Gulf States. There has also been a visible dearth in foreign and domestic investments. The proximity of Lebanon to Syria has created paranoia in terms of investing capital, with some companies even moving their bases away from Beirut.
For instance, the advertising industry in Lebanon that serves mostly Gulf clients has suffered significant setbacks simply due to the possibility of another bombing or outbreak of clashes.
Within this context of a minimally functioning government and a stagnant economy, introducing a large refugee population poses an obvious added strain to the economy.
Additionally, Syrian migrants, who are willing to work for low wages simply out of desperation, are stereotypically treated as “unfair competition” by native unskilled laborers, especially given the high unemployment rates in this particular demographic of Lebanon. Although Syrian laborers have always comprised a significant percentage of the country’s workforce, a continuing flow of such workers places Lebanese counterparts at a disadvantage.
“In January 2013, Beirut requested $370 million from the international community to help defray government and UNHCR costs to accommodate the refugees for six months,” explains Schenker.
Lebanon is yet to receive significant funding based on donor pledges, with some states actually downgrading their financial commitments in recent months.
An additional influx of Syrian migrants has added to the economic woes of the poorest populations concentrated in remote rural areas of Akkar and Baalbek, which incidentally also receive a majority of the refugees because of their proximity to Syria and highly porous borders. But a large percentage of the refugee population constitutes women, children and older Syrians who are not part of a labor force.
Some collateral effects of the presence of refugees in Lebanon have even been beneficial to local economies. The housing sector is one such example. Unlike Jordan and Turkey, a majority of the refugees in Lebanon are housed in public buildings and properties owned by Lebanese.
Due to the large number of informal refugees, who are estimated to be as many as those registered by UNHCR, the demand for residential real estate has increased. This need for housing has becoming a source of revenue for Lebanese homeowners, especially in remote villages of the Bekaa that are largely bereft of financial incentives and investments.
“I have had a family set up a tent in my backyard for the past few months. I have taken them in as I feel they are our brothers and sisters who need our help. Our histories are tied,” explains a resident of Ersal who drives a minivan between Beirut and the Bekaa.
Schenker corroborates this trend by explaining that the “the mass influx has fuelled gains in the sluggish real-estate market and has raised the level of occupancy in Lebanon’s mid and lower-tier hotels, which had been suffering due to a slowdown in tourism.”
But in terms of the general psyche of the Lebanese public that has not yet had the space to fully and functionally move on from the memories and effects of a bitter civil war and subjugation by its dominant neighbor, the Syrian influx correlates to descent into full-fledged conflict. On the other hand, most would agree that a continuing stalemate in Syria in terms of reconciliation and an end to the hostilities is a pressing political quagmire and not just a “perceived threat.”
Lebanon shares a border with Syria that is approximately 365 kilometers long, highly porous, and historically susceptible to incursions. The latest UN report released on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559 urges “demarcating” and “securing” the border areas to create stability and prevent Lebanon from becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict.
“I condemn the repeated incidents in which civilians were reported to have been killed, injured or put at risk on the Lebanese side of the border owing to the actions of [the Syrian authorities],” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He also called for regional players, especially Iran with whom Hezbollah maintains close ties, to “encourage the transformation of the armed group into a solely political party and its disarmament.”
Parts of the Bekaa, such as Ersal, have become a haven for civilian refugees fleeing the conflict but also for fighters belonging to opposition forces aligned with the Free Syrian Army. This has in turn led to air strikes by the Syrian Air Force under the premise of seeking out “terrorist” elements hiding under the auspices of Lebanese factions allied with the opposition.
Issa points out that some of the immediate priorities are being addressed by Lebanon.
“The Lebanese army and Hezbollah were working together in 2012 to close the border along the mountain range, which was a major point of infiltration for the anti-government rebels and that was partially achieved.”
In recent months, rebel forces have been trying to open up the eastern range that forms a large part of the border between Lebanon and Syria to smuggle weapons and revive their efforts of toppling the regime in Syria.
Tripoli forms another epicenter of tensions, extending into the Akkar, which forms the northern crux of the refugee influx and one of the most under-developed regions of the country. Mired in chronic warfare over decades, despite the end of the civil war, Tripoli is experiencing a new wave of clashes.
Since 2012, fighting took place in February, May, June, July, August, October and again in recent weeks immediately following Mikati’s resignation in March of this year.
Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) and Bab- Al Tabbaneh (Sunni) are the two small neighborhoods in Tripoli that form the epicenter of the tensions between pro-Assad and pro-opposition forces. The placement of these two neighborhoods divided only by a street ironically named Syria, with the Alawite neighborhood atop a hill and the Sunni community across and down below, has facilitated recurring gunfire exchanges.
Their deep-seated hatred for each other peaked during the civil war years.
Political leaders in both communities continue to nurture radicalized views.
Heavy militarization among youth who are economically and politically disenfranchised from mainstream society has prevented longterm stability in these communities. These two neighborhoods form a small part of the city of Tripoli; yet they pose a sizable threat to the stability of the north and inevitably the entire country.
Given the close ties of high-level officials to the city of Tripoli and the intrinsic loyalties of these residents and their local leaders to the different sides of the Syrian conflict, the ripple effect of events in Beirut and Damascus almost always resonate through Tripoli in the form of clashes.
A continuing flow of refugees has facilitated an uncontrolled migration and inevitably training of anti-Assad Lebanese fighters who support the armed opposition in Syria, who in turn battle pro-Assad Shia militiamen from the south of Lebanon. The dangers of such mobilization, diametrically opposed to each other, inside Lebanon’s borders are evident and increasing. 