April 9, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Lebanon: Another Casualty of Syria’s War?

The Syrian civil war is causing both humanitarian and political crises outside of its borders

• Lebanon is a case in point, with 20% of its population now refugees from the Syrian civil war

• Lebanon was brought to its knees by the presence and politics of Palestinian refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, and must fear a repeat of history

• The collapse of Lebanon’s security environment would cause a serious escalation of regional tensions.

With events in Crimea and other pressing issues of international concern, let alone a missing airliner, the civil conflict in Syria may be fast becoming a forgotten war. But the consequences for the country and the region are both real and far-reaching.

However, one piece of directly related news has attracted recent media coverage: the number of people who have gone to Lebanon to escape the fighting has now topped one million. This has brought attention to the remarkable fact that over 20% of the country’s population are refugees from the Syrian civil war. This would be comparable to an influx over a period of about three years of more than 75 million refugees into the US, or around 20 million into Germany.

Over 65% of the refugees are women or children under 12 and most are too poor to have brought anything with them. While some have been able to rent houses, the great majority has either accepted the hospitality of Lebanese relatives or offers of help from other families, even though they too have little to spare. Others have set up temporary camps around Beirut or moved into existing Palestinian camps. Unfortunately, Lebanon is in no position to accommodate such numbers, let alone provide education, healthcare, and food.

In addition to the new arrivals from Syria, there are over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in the country whose presence dates back to the creation of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Like the Syrians who followed them, these refugees were also accommodated in temporary camps, most of which are still there, and are now significantly overcrowded and under resourced. Lebanon has struggled with how to treat its Palestinian population, and still considers them non-permanent residents, limiting their rights to property ownership, work and access to schools and clinics. In reality of course, most Palestinian refugees were born in the camps, and the likelihood of their returning “home” is immeasurably small.

Although there were other factors at play, most Lebanese see the presence of the Palestinian refugees as a direct cause of the civil war in their country that raged with brief interruptions from 1975 to 1990. It is certainly true that Palestinian political groups, which became more militant following the ejection of fighters from Jordan in 1970 after the "Black September" attempt to overthrow King Hussein, provoked much of the fighting, including  the invasions of Lebanon by Israel in 1978 and 1982. Their presence in the country also seriously upset the delicate balance between communities on which the country’s viability had relied.

Although Lebanon recovered quite well from its civil war, political tensions escalated especially following the withdrawal of the Syrian Army after the murder of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. It is a society and political system that relies very much on unspoken and spoken agreements between its competing constituents. The large influx of Syrians since late 2011 has reminded people of the country’s vulnerability to sectarian violence and outside interference, and how quickly political disputes can descend into violence and criminality. Additionally, the economy is weak and now suffers both the burden of these extraordinary numbers of refugees, and the loss of its main trading partner as Syria’s economy also continues to crater.

If this were a local problem that the United Nations agencies could deal with, given a bit of outside help, maybe it could be safely relegated to an area of relative inattention. But the stability of Lebanon is at real risk and its situation provides warning signs for what else might transpire if the war in Syria continues to drag on. The Lebanese are outward-looking and sophisticated people; their leaders typically speak three languages and know a good deal about the world, and despite the rocky path of their brief history as a nation, they have managed to show that it is possible for a people sharply divided along sectarian lines to survive and, briefly, to prosper. They will not want to descend back into chaos, as they know that the failure of their own institutions will invite further external intervention and increase regional instability. But there is only so much pressure that they can bear. Already extremist groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have established branches in Lebanon, and attacks and counter attacks are becoming more common.

Although local and regional powers appear to recognize this danger, with Saudi Arabia giving $3 billion to the Lebanese Army last December, and all factions supporting the recently introduced Tripoli and Bekaa Valley Security Plans, designed to bring calm to the two areas where Syrian war spillover has been most evident, more action will be needed. There are now over nine million people displaced by the war in Syria, and the trend towards violent lawlessness is well-established and hard to reverse. The prospects for both political and economic recovery are remote, and more people will leave for safer havens outside the country. But if in Syria it is still the humanitarian crisis that dominates the political one, in Lebanon it will not be so easy to distinguish between them.



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