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Don’t Sacrifice Lebanon for the Syrian Refugees

When Robert Fisk wrote Pity the Nation, the history of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, he probably never imagined things would get that bad. Well, they might.

There are over 900,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon (though the actual number may be 1.5 million as the United Nations stopped registering arrivals in 2015), and they now comprise at least 15% of the population of 6 million, the most refugees per capita in the world. The cash-strapped Lebanese government is now dealing with the problem by deporting the refugees to Syria, voluntarily and involuntarily.

The Syrian refugees are expensive for the beleaguered Lebanese economy, which has a debt of $84 billion, over 150% of GDP. International aid has been significant, but the refugees have displaced higher-priced Lebanese workers in a country with significant youth unemployment, adding to social tension (though Lebanese businesses have benefitted from cheap labor). And Lebanon has been ranked 2nd worst in the world for water stress, according to the World Resources Institute, so the addition of the refugees may diminish Lebanon’s future economic development prospects.

In addition, Syrian Sunni refugees are upsetting Lebanon’s always precarious confessional balance. A million Sunni refugees make the Shia, Christians, Druze and other members of Lebanon’s eighteen recognized sects uneasy.

One last strike against the Syrian refugees is that they are, well, Syrian. The Syrian regime thinks it lost Lebanon by colonial trickery so it always acted like it owned the place. Syrian forces occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and Syrian intelligence officers made or influenced most of the major decisions in the country, including arranging political murders, probably including that of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

The presence of Syrian refugees reminds the Lebanese of Syria’s overbearing presence in their history and allows Syria to destabilize Lebanon fourteen years after it was ejected from the country.

The Lebanese know the cautionary tale of the Palestinians. After the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Palestinians fled the new state of Israel with the expectation they would return after the Arab armies scattered the Jews. Seventy-one years later, almost a half-million registered Palestinian refugees live in camps administered by the UNRWA.

Lebanon also understands the risk that armed militias can drive the country into a war with a neighbor. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was based in South Lebanon from the late 1960s to 1982 and regularly carried out attacks on Israel, prompting Israeli retaliation. (Ironically, the PLO wound up in Lebanon after it was ejected from Jordan for using Jordanian territory for raids on Israel.) In 2006, Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers caused the 2006 Lebanon War which displaced a million Lebanese and cost the country almost $7 billion.

More recently, the Sunni Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, founded in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, fought the Lebanese Army (and lost). It was accused by Syria of a car bombing in Damascus, and its surviving members later fought in Syria with various anti-regime forces, including al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

Syrian refugees in Arsal, Lebanon. (UNHCR)

There is no PLO-like organization seeking to represent all Syrian refugees and stage a war against the Assad regime, so the challenge is to repatriate the refugees before they become Palestinians 2.0.

There are already two failed states in the region – Libya, and Syria – so a goal should be to prevent Lebanon from joining that club. The international community will get involved in Syria to the extent that the U.S. maintains a military presence in the country, but President Donald Trump’s disdain for “endless wars” will bind the international community’s efforts in the Syrian cockpit. In short, the guys who want President Bashar al-Assad to stay want him to stay more than the guys who want him to go will exert themselves.

And a failed Lebanon might unleash another wave of refugees to Europe, bolstering the far-right parties that are anathema to the same people who would hazard Lebanon to accommodate the refugees.

After years of a “no camps” policy, Beirut is pushing back. The government now requires Syrians to have work permits, ordered the demolition of permanent refugee housing, and attacked the United Nations for working to ensure Syrian refugees stay in Lebanon, the UN’s action likely spurred by the economic interest of the “refugee industrial complex” as much as by concern for the safety of returnees. These efforts build on previous actions to stop welcoming refugees in 2014, and to introduce visa restrictions in 2015.

The UN has estimated it will cost $180 billion to restore Syria’s infrastructure to pre-conflict levels. Assad’s patrons, Russia and Iran, can’t afford that so adding the burden of one million returned refugees to the mix will allow the West to highlight the fact that they aren’t interested in finishing what they started.

Russia and Iran temporarily aligned their interests in Syria, but they are now diverging and even Damascus is complaining about it, so piling on the stressors, like the refugees and more sanctions, will splinter the alliance, regardless of any Persian Gulf cooperation photo-ops. But the biggest threat may come from within the alliance as Russian businesses are interested in the Syrian markets that are now Iran’s, so we may soon see Russia’s connected guys competing with Iran’s connected guys.

It was hypothesized that Putin went into Syria in order to trade a settlement there for Western sufferance of Russia’s seizure of Crimea. That won’t happen so now Russia is lashed to Syria with no relief in Crimea, a win for the West.

Lebanon’s leaders have an obligation to their citizens, and less so to the Syrians. Lebanon isn’t a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol – a wise decision in retrospect. And it won’t be losing much human capital by encouraging repatriation as “one out of three [refugees] is either illiterate or never attended school, 40 percent have a primary education, and only three percent achieved university education,” according to the UN.

Lebanon’s confessional balancing has kept the country relatively peaceful since the end of the civil war, marred only by Hezbollah’s takeover of West Beirut in the summer of 2008, but that model is predicated on a stable population. The sudden injection of a million refugees, and all of one confession, Sunnis, has the potential to unbalance the system, and is leading to calls for rejection of foreign labor and “Lebanon First.” And it has come at a bad time as Lebanon is facing the need for serious belt-tightening to get its shambolic public finances in order. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has called for “sacrifice” but that’ll go down only if Lebanese don’t feel jobs are at risk to the refugees.

What should the West do?

The U.S. and interested parties should let Lebanon deal with the refugees as it sees fit and not obstruct their repatriation. Then, it should pressure Beirut to reform its economy, and that includes the country’s trademarked brand of corruption. Reform efforts have stalled for the past six years so the removal of the refugees will give the West the opportunity to publicly reject Beirut’s excuses for inaction. Lebanese politicians will try to rope-a-dope the West but maybe Washington should tell the leaders some of what it knows about the unexplained wealth they forgot to disclose to the taxman – or their wives.

And what’s in it for the Lebanese for getting their house in order? Plenty.

Aside from attracting more business once the place is no longer a compliance nightmare, the country will be able to push ahead of the next licensing round for the country’s significant offshore oil and gas reserves. And the leadership may have the bandwidth to come to an agreement with Israel over disputed maritime boundaries as this has delayed the development of offshore oil and gas blocs. Lebanon will then be a more active player in Eastern Mediterranean oil and gas development and a potential partner in Europe’s quest to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia.

And being Europe’s energy partner will do a lot for good government as the European Union will insist on transparency in public finances so the Lebanese public knows where the oil and gas money is going. Lebanon’s political class is dizzy thinking of the rake-off potential so it’s up to the EU to partner with like-minded Lebanese and be the enforcer of transparency to minimize the public money spent on mistresses, condos in Dubai, or private armies.