Lebanon in Light of the Syria Conflict: Resilience Despite Polarization and Tensions

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Mural in a refugee school in Shatila

Impressions from a study tour in October 2016 

Lebanon is not in an enviable position. The country has seen political stagnation and sectarian tensions for years. As a result of the Syrian conflict, Lebanon has also become the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Against this background, the fact that there has not been more instability in the past years is surprising. Yet there are no guarantees that the factors fueling the Syrian conflict might not eventually spill over into Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbors.

To gain a more nuanced understanding of the conflict in Syria and its impact on the neighboring states, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Middle East organized a study tour to Lebanon in October 2016 with selected US experts on the Middle East from the US government and think tanks based in Washington, DC. The participants of the study tour met with members of civil society groups, policy-makers, foreign diplomats, and journalists to discuss the political situation in Lebanon and particularly the situation of refugees in the country. Among the key takeaways is that the Syrian conflict, and the refugee situation resulting from it, has intensified Lebanon’s own political tensions. Among the most pressing questions is how the thousands of Hezbollah fighters who will return to Lebanon once the Syria conflict ends will affect the delicate political balance in Lebanon.

Polarized politics and society

Following the devastating Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, which left over 150,000 dead and a national trauma in Lebanon’s society, political representation in Lebanon has been organized in a power-sharing system between the various sectarian communities (the constitution acknowledges 18 religious groups). While the post-civil war system ensures the inclusion of all communities in the political process and public institutions and prevents dominance by any single group, it has also led to patronage networks and systemic corruption. Tensions in Lebanon increased again significantly after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2006. His murder led to huge public protests against the Syrian occupation that forced neighboring Syria to reduce its interference in Lebanese politics. But polarization has remained in Lebanon and the political parties are broadly divided into two political camps that have widely divergent views on foreign policy. The so-called “March 8” coalition, which includes the main Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal Movement, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and some smaller parties, has traditionally maintained close ties to the Syrian regime and Iran. On the opposite side, the “March 14” alliance, which consists of the Future Movement (the strongest Sunni party) and the two Christian parties Kataeb and Lebanese Forces, has held close relations with Saudi Arabia, Western countries, and the Syrian opposition groups. Not surprisingly, the political alliances have diametrically opposed positions on the conflict in Syria.

Despite several attempts to form “national unity governments”, the polarization has led to political stagnation over the years. Parliamentary elections that were initially scheduled for June 2013 were postponed twice due to security concerns; instead, the parliament itself extended its mandate. A new attempt for an election is scheduled for June 2017, but many people that we talked to doubt that they will be held. A major obstacle is the lack of a new electoral law with which the current winner-take-all system would be replaced with a proportional or a hybrid system. But since the traditional elites fear that they might lose power, the political parties have been unable to agree on new legislation. It is also controversial if a new electoral law is really needed in order to hold parliamentary elections. At the same time the security concerns seem no longer valid after municipal elections were held in May 2016 in a largely peaceful atmosphere, which was seen as a test case for the parliamentary elections next year.                        

Similar to the parliament, the current caretaker government under Prime Minister Tammam Salam is deeply divided and was close to collapse several times. As the government provides only limited administrative services, the sectarian groups increasingly look towards their own communities for support. The political elites have for long also been unable to agree on a candidate for a new president, whose post had been vacant since May 2014. According to the constitution, the president needs to be a Maronite Christian. The deep rivalry between the main Christian parties that belong to the two opposing political camps has not helped in finding a suitable agreed-on candidate, and many of our interviewees doubted that a new president would be elected before the end of the Syrian conflict. Surprisingly, the parliament on October 31st agreed to elect Michel Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement) as new president. The former military leader is a divisive politician who is supported by Hezbollah.

Since the power-sharing system has shown its limitations in ensuring political stability, some interviewees nourished hope that with the end of the war in Syria, a comprehensive peace agreement that is backed by all regional powers could also include a compromise constitution for Lebanon. A positive outcome would be a shift from the sectarian-based power-sharing system to a system based on equal citizenship rights. But this seems unrealistic as some groups fear that the abolition of the sectarian quota will harm their political standing within Lebanon. Foreign diplomats remark that instead of hoping for a regional solution, the Lebanese elites should focus on finding compromises among themselves instead. That this is indeed possible was illustrated in 2015 when elites allowed law enforcement units to crush mass demonstrations initially protesting against insufficient garbage collection and later protesting against the corrupt elites.

Refugee influx increased tensions in Lebanon

The influx of refugees from Syria has to some extent exacerbated tensions between the political camps in Lebanon. Lebanon has an estimated four million inhabitants; the real number is unclear since the last national census was conducted in 1932. Since 2011, about 1.2 million refugees from Syria have registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but the total number of Syrian refugees is estimated at around 1.5 million. In addition, there are more than 300.000 Palestinian refugees in the country. Lebanon thus hosts by far the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.  As Lebanon is not a state party to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its government does not regard Lebanon as a final destination for refugees or country of settlement. The refugees are therefore merely considered temporarily displaced persons.

Lebanon has a difficult past in regard to refugees due to the role that Palestinian refugee militants played in the run-up to the civil war. While there is a historic animosity towards the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syrian refugees have a somewhat better standing in Lebanon’s society, and there was at least initially much solidarity with the Syrian refugees. However, one of the political challenges regarding Syrian refugees is the fact that most of them are Sunni Muslims. The Christian and Shiite sects in particular fear that the refugees – similar to Palestinians refugees – could settle permanently, causing significant demographic changes in the long run and jeopardizing the delicate balance of power between the different sects. Some observers (including from the Sunni community) also warn that there are supporters of the Islamic State among the current refugees from Syria, or that many of the refugees are in fact pro-Assad.

Such controversies around the Syrian refugees might be the reason why Lebanon closed its border with Syria in January 2015 and introduced a visa system for Syrians, requiring them to declare the reason for their entry and show sufficient funding for their stay. Lebanese authorities no longer allow the newcomers to register with UNHCR, a policy which is criticized by Western diplomats who advise the continued the registration of the refugees in order to know who is in the country. According to interviewees, the solidarity with the refugees among the Lebanese population has vanished. As a result, Lebanese politicians from all sects increasingly argue that there are indeed safe areas in Syria to which the refugees can return.

Deteriorating conditions for refugees

The official government position on refugees along with the paralysis of state institutions has resulted in the provision of only limited social and economic services for the refugees. The government also does not allow official refugee camps for Syrians in the country but tolerates the informal settlements in which many refugees reside throughout the country. The unclear legal status allows landowners to take advantage of the refugees by charging high rents on their properties. In 2015, the UN’s World Food Program had to cut the rations for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Since then, the UN only provides 13 US dollars of food each month per refugee. As the refugees are also not allowed to work in Lebanon, many enter the labor market illegally, making them vulnerable to exploitation by employers that can save on taxes and social benefits. This, on the other hand, raises frustration among unskilled workers in Lebanon that are alarmed by the new competition. Lebanese politicians increasingly argue that Lebanon’s capacities are overstressed and that the labor market needs to be secured for Lebanese laborers. If unregistered refugees from Syria are caught at the many check points throughout the country, they are sometimes detained for a few days but are usually not deported to Syria. There are no legal guarantees that this practice might not change if anti-refugee sentiments continue to rise.

As the Lebanese authorities only provide limited resources for the refugees, civil society groups – oftentimes supported by international donors – have stepped in to support the refugees. During a visit to the Bekaa Valley in Eastern Lebanon, where more than 370,000 refugees from Syria are residing, we met with members of the NGO “Basamat” that supports female refugees and children from Syria. The NGO’s approach is based on the belief that women play an important role in peace-building after conflicts. To facilitate women’s empowerment, the NGO organizes training courses for women to take on leadership roles in their communities, provides vocational training and small business grants, offers language and communications courses, and provides psychological support in its community centers and schools. It also publishes monthly magazines in which female refugees can share their experience. Freedom of expression is a new experience for many women. During a visit to one of their schools, we could observe that interest in such activities is significant among the refugees.

In addition to the enormous social and economic challenges facing Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, who arrived in Lebanon decades ago, often live in dire conditions as well. It is estimated that around half of the Palestinians still live in one of the twelve Palestinian camps throughout Lebanon. As they have never been naturalized, life for the Palestinians in Lebanon is extremely restricted. For a long time, they were not allowed to work, which forced them to work illegally. Legislation passed in 2010 gave Palestinians the right to apply for work permits, but it is estimated that only 3% have succeeded in a getting such a permit. Palestinians are also not allowed to work in many professions, for example as doctors or lawyers, and are not allowed to own property outside of camps. If they want to buy an apartment, they have to rely on Lebanese friends to serve as the owner. The Palestinians are not even allowed to bring building materials into the camps, though not many comply with this restriction. As one can see for example in the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut, buildings are gradually expanded vertically.

While there are no official refugee camps for the recent Syrian refugees, the Palestinian camps have been administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Lebanese authorities are not allowed to interfere in the camps. Instead, locally elected popular committees are in charge of providing public services and security for the residents of the camps. But due to the conflict in Syria, many Palestinian refugees that have lived for decades in Syria have fled to Lebanon and settled in the UNRWA camps. The influx of new refugees has significantly affected the social and economic conditions in the Palestinian camps, whose administrations are often unable to support all refugees and to provide electricity, drinking water, and regular garbage collection. Due to the deteriorating sanitary conditions, health problems are rising. Drug trafficking and drug abuse especially among youth has become an urgent topic that the security committees are not able to address effectively. Civil society groups like the NGO “Basmeh and Zeitooneh”, which inter alia support women to start their own businesses to prepare them for post-conflict Syria, are increasingly stepping in to support the refugees. But in these instances as well, resources are limited to support all refugees.

Western countries’ focus on Lebanon’s security sector

The Lebanese authorities frequently ask the international community to provide more assistance to deal with the refugee situation. To improve the situation, over ten billion US dollars were pledged for humanitarian relief during an international donor conference in London in February 2016. In return, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon committed themselves to open up their labor markets for Syrian refugees and to ensure that all refugee children have access to schools.

However, while Lebanese observers criticize the international community for not keeping its their promises, Western diplomats point out that the Lebanese authorities have not adequately addressed the education and residency rights of the refugees. NGOs that work with refugees hope that international pressure will help promote a more impactful dialogue on refugee issues within Lebanon. Western governments’ trust in the Lebanese authorities appears limited, and due to fears of corruption within the bureaucracy, humanitarian assistance is disbursed directly to UN agencies or local NGOs.

With deteriorating conditions for the refugees, many observers fear that the Syrian refugees will become increasingly radicalized. In addition, many fear that ISIS will gradually encroach into Lebanon. ISIS supporters have already carried out several attacks in northern and eastern Lebanon, targeting the Shiite population in particular.  For example in November 2015, ISIS suicide bombings killed more than 40 people in a mainly Shiite neighborhood in Beirut. Some Lebanese NGOs argue that the terrorist threat is mostly home grown and that refugees are unlikely to radicalize. The United States and European countries have for years assisted the Lebanese Armed Forces which they consider an important pillar of stability in Lebanon that can also prevent ISIS from encroaching into Lebanon. But Western diplomats are also wary that the army occasionally cooperates with Hezbollah’s paramilitary organization to secure the state from jihadist terrorists.

Hezbollah a tricky element in Western policies towards Lebanon

A particularly difficult element of Western policies towards Lebanon involves the right approach to address Hezbollah, which is heavily supported by Iran. The United States regards the group as a terrorist organization and refuses talks with its representatives, in part due to Hezbollah’s specific targeting of Israel. The US government aims to minimize the political space that is available to Hezbollah, to hurt its finances, and to build up political institutions in Lebanon that can resist Hezbollah’s influence. The “Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act”, which the US Congress adopted in December 2015, targets financial institutions found to facilitate transactions on behalf of Hezbollah. However, the US has not yet applied sanctions and also does not seem interested in a full-scale confrontation with Hezbollah. While the Europeans consider Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization they try to remain open for talks with its political wing. In the European view, due to Hezbollah’s influence and power, it is an important domestic actor in Lebanon and is thus difficult to ignore completely.

Indeed, Hezbollah does seem to be an unavoidable political and social actor in Lebanon. It is the only party that did not disarm after the civil war (although other parties also maintain local militias) and the fact that the group maintains a well-trained and equipped militia and an effective intelligence service in Lebanon seems widely accepted. Hezbollah also maintains a popular social welfare service. Most observers regard Hezbollah as strongest and most influential actor with the ability to take control of Lebanon (which it demonstrated in 2008 when its militia invaded Beirut). Hezbollah seems to benefit most from the political stagnation and has gradually increased its popularity. With an estimated 5,000 of its fighters deployed to Syria to support the Assad regime, Hezbollah has no interest in stirring tensions in Lebanon. Observers, however, wonder what will happen when the conflict in Syria ends and the Hezbollah fighters return to Lebanon. Lebanese authorities expect that the international community will find a solution for this problem in a comprehensive peace agreement. The most likely solution is their integrating the fighters into the Lebanese Armed Forces, which will again alter the delicate balance of power in the country.

This balance of power seems to be shattered already. This is partly because the parties that represent the Christian sect have been divided since 2006, and also because the main political party that represents the Sunni community, the Future Movement, lacks a strong leader. Since the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2006, the Sunni community has become increasingly fragmented. Also the traditional ally Saudi Arabia has turned away from the Sunni community out of frustration over the Lebanese government’s and its foreign ministry’s refusal to openly condemn the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Iran in early 2016. Riyadh perceived this as another indication that the Sunni community is too divided and that Hezbollah is indeed in control of the Lebanese government. Saudi Arabia therefore cancelled a three billion US dollar grant to the Lebanese Armed Forces and a billion US dollar donation to the Internal Security Forces. Its foreign ministry also issued a travel warning for Lebanon. The Saudi disengagement from Lebanon further consolidates Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon.

In conclusion

While some observers warn that the current domestic situation in Lebanon resembles the run-up to the civil war, others praise Lebanon’s resilience in light of the Syria conflict. Many interviewees explained that the Lebanese are indeed used to crises. More importantly, however, seems the fact that there are all-too vivid memories of the civil war that have served to diminish interest in renewed warfare. The election of a new president illustrates that there still is potential for compromises among the ruling elites.

Among the key takeaways from the trip is that Lebanon is indeed deeply affected by the war in Syria. Lebanon has to deal with a tremendous influx of refugees that overwhelmed the country’s authorities. Fortunately there is a strong civil society that has assumed parts of the humanitarian assistance. But tensions between the political camps don’t seem to vanish as long as the war in Syria continues. The best way to ensure that there are not further spillovers from the Syria conflict that could potentially destabilize Lebanon is by finding a solution for ending the war. Besides Syria itself, Lebanon would considerably benefit from a peace agreement.