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Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
People gather amid damage and the remains of tents for Syrian refugees that were burnt in the fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa, 9 August 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Shalha

Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town

The fate of the border town Arsal mirrors Lebanon’s many policy failures. The government applies heavy-handed security at the expense of basic services and fair economic opportunities. It should change its policies to become more flexible, accountable and supportive of Syrian refugees – and receive more international help in return.

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I. Overview

Weakened by deepening inter- and intra-communal rifts, the Lebanese state has gradually abandoned its primary role in governance and as manager of representative politics and relies increasingly on security measures to maintain stability and the political status quo. The remote border town of Arsal in the north east is emblematic of this security-centric method of tackling unrest. The approach, which escalated after the Syrian war began next door, is short-sighted and dangerous, as it fights symptoms while inadvertently reinforcing underlying factors that drive instability. If the government were to address Arsal’s plight in a more balanced manner that takes those factors into account by folding its security component into an overall political strategy, it could yet turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one, preventing the town’s downward spiral and providing a model for tackling such problems in the country overall.

Arsal combines many of Lebanon’s woes: economic erosion and poor governance at its fringes; sectarian fault lines shaping the fate of a Sunni enclave within a majority-Shiite governorate (Baalbek-Hermel) in the Beqaa Valley; the weakening of Sunni national leadership and growing assertiveness of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement whose militia is actively fighting in Syria; and the spillover of the Syrian conflict. The latter has turned the town into a rear base for anti-regime fighters, a trans-shipment point for explosive devices, and – for both these reasons – a threat for Hizbollah and Lebanon’s security apparatus. It has also turned the town into an initial haven for waves of refugees, adding to severe pressures on both the Lebanese state and individual localities throughout Lebanon.

A five-day battle between Syrian jihadis and the Lebanese army in August 2014 put Arsal on the map as a national threat in the minds of many Lebanese. The army then cordoned off the town, its checkpoints making it extremely difficult for ordinary Arsalis to travel, outsiders to visit, aid to reach tens of thousands of refugees hunkered down in the area and even local peasants to access their lands. The economy collapsed, while Syrian armed groups stayed put, seemingly enjoying a modus vivendi with the army provided they kept a low profile. In this festering stalemate of social disruption and popular resentment, radical Syrian groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra benefit the most, as they can mobilise local anger and harness it to their worldview.

Violence in and around Arsal has decreased as a result of the army’s cordon but not ended. Lebanon’s military response might be understandable. The country’s brittle stability does not leave room for much leniency or political risk taking, especially in today’s highly dangerous regional environment. The state’s dysfunction gives carte blanche to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by default, because it is one of the country’s rare functioning institutions. Moreover, the massive refugee influx, amounting to more than one quarter of Lebanon’s population, has aggravated pre-existing problems and strained already scarce resources, making it very difficult for even an effective government to cope with socio-economic needs.

Nevertheless, the state’s heavy reliance on security to solve all manner of political and social ills offers no durable solution. If anything can explain more specifically how the situation in Arsal spun out of control, it is a long track record of central authority neglect; and if there is anything its inhabitants truly want, it is a greater presence of the state’s non-security parts: improved basic services, economic opportunities, better political representation, a solution to, or at least mitigation of, the refugee crisis and effective policing instead of collective punishment.

Beyond the Arsal case, which is troubling in its own right, lies the bigger story of the state’s gradual abdication of its duties. As its performance on governance and representative politics grows more dismal by the day, it increasingly falls back on security measures devoid of any serious political, humanitarian or developmental component. This approach has proven dangerously seductive, by maintaining an appearance of stability while catalysing the state’s further decay in a self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse. Over the years, such behaviour has become a pattern in Lebanon; beyond its borders, the same logic has been taken even further in Iraq, the progressive disintegration of whose state should be a cautionary lesson. Rather than suppressing the symptoms wherever instability metastasises, Lebanese authorities should be treating the causes.

Arsal would be a good place to start. To arrest the downward spiral, the authorities should reduce army security measures in and around it in ways that would still be security-effective. For instance, nothing prevents them from either abolishing the permit required for outsiders to visit, or granting it by default, except when there is clear evidence of ill-intent. Allegations of human rights abuse by security officers should be promptly and vigorously investigated and proven offences punished. Procedures are needed that would enable local farmers to cultivate their land. Authorities should facilitate adequate humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and relieve Arsal by relocating some of them to other areas in Lebanon, an idea discussed by the government but not acted upon.

If this comprehensive approach can succeed in Arsal, perhaps the government and donors could then apply the lessons to the country’s other multiplying trouble spots. In that case, donor countries would have to significantly increase their support to Lebanon to help it address the refugee crisis and its impact on host communities. The Lebanese government would then need in turn to allocate adequate funds to other areas like Arsal that are hosting high numbers of refugees, with the aim to set up viable and sustainable economic and infrastructure projects.

Beirut/Brussels, 23 February 2016

Afghan nationals walk along a fenced corridor after crossing into Pakistan through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on 28 August 2021. AFP
Briefing Note / Asia

Afghanistan’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis

Since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, the humanitarian emergency there has become even more dire. This briefing note outlines the most pressing issues and steps to help relieve the suffering.

Dramatic scenes at the Kabul airport of Afghans desperate to leave the country, and horrific bombings there, captured the world’s attention in the weeks after the Taliban took power. The focus is now shifting to a much larger, multi-faceted humanitarian crisis throughout the country. Violence, displacement, drought and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Afghan population with accelerating force in recent years, and the humanitarian disaster gathered pace in May as the final withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces began. Afghans teemed across borders seeking refuge after the government collapsed on 15 August.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on 30 August calling for “enhanced” humanitarian assistance. Making that happen will require an urgent increase in donor funding, easing of sanctions, regional cooperation on air bridges for aid delivery and – perhaps most difficult – persistent attention from Western governments that may prefer to move on from defeat in Afghanistan. Donors and aid organisations will be confronted with wrenching decisions in the coming weeks as they are called upon to answer the UN’s flash appeal while also being disquieted by the Taliban’s new de facto authority. In the interest of preventing a human catastrophe that reverberates throughout South and Central Asia, donors will need to set aside their concerns about the Taliban, at least for the narrow purpose of ensuring that aid reaches the Afghan population and refugees living nearby.

Violence, Displacement, Food Insecurity and Deteriorating Essential Services

Unprecedented numbers of civilians were killed and injured in the early months of 2021 and at least 560,000 people were displaced, including nearly 120,000 fleeing to Kabul as they sought refuge from Taliban advances. Those numbers represent the worst-ever period in what for some years has been the world’s deadliest conflict. The count of displaced people in Afghanistan over the last seven months was twice the monthly average in the last five years, and the figures are expected to grow as aid agencies’ accounting catches up with the scale of the crisis. Some 80 per cent of those fleeing violence since the end of May have been women and children. Thousands of displaced people in Kabul have been sleeping in the open air, and only a minuscule portion of them escaped during the international airlift that ended on 30 August.

The UN reports that hospitals are overflowing, medical supplies are dwindling and critical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. Essential food supplies in many cities are running short. Pressures are especially acute in Kabul, where job losses and spiralling inflation have made it even more challenging for people to purchase food and other staples. The largest employer in the country, the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, has dissolved. Salaries for other state employees cannot be paid because of international asset freezes. Banks are running out of cash. City parks are filled with makeshift encampments. The prices of vegetables in Kabul’s bazaars have climbed 50 per cent in recent weeks, and fuel prices are up 75 per cent and rising. Kabul’s airport – crucial for bringing in humanitarian supplies and for enabling post-airlift departures for Afghans vulnerable to Taliban reprisals – was seriously damaged during the chaotic evacuation and has not yet begun operating again in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

The Taliban’s violent sweep to power and resulting collapse of government functions is compounding a humanitarian crisis that was already dire and had worsened over the last few years. As reported by Crisis Group last year, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact: it is believed to have infected millions and it helped drive an increase in the poverty level from 38 per cent in 2011 to an estimated 47 per cent in 2020. At the beginning of 2021, as many as 14 million people could not obtain sufficient food, according to the UN, meaning that more than one third of the population of roughly 38 million was going hungry. Food insecurity is a result of repeated droughts over the last three years, and the recent disorder is expected to exacerbate the situation.

Afghans’ Limited Options and the Refugee Crisis

For decades, millions of Afghans have escaped crises by seeking refuge abroad – mostly in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. The latest disasters, however, have struck at a time when other countries are increasingly shutting their doors to Afghans. Regional and international actors have been improvising as they respond to the Taliban takeover, but the early signs suggest that many Afghan refugees will struggle to find new homes. The UN refugee agency has issued a call for countries to uphold their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, while recognising the burden on neighbouring countries, and has estimated that up to half a million Afghans may flee the country by the end of 2021.

Pakistan, which already shelters an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees, initially refused to allow entry to more refugees and has been working to complete a fence along its porous boundary with Afghanistan, although some gates have since reopened to uprooted Afghans. Iran, which hosts more than 2 million Afghan refugees, has been setting up makeshift camps but has urged repatriation as soon as possible. Even during the recent heights of the war, the two countries were repatriating large numbers of Afghans. In 2020 alone, more than one million Afghan migrants were returned or deported, largely from Iran and Pakistan, though some also from further away, including Western countries. Central Asian countries have also been reluctant to take Afghan refugees, even temporarily, in recent weeks. Only Tajikistan has so far indicated it is willing to host up to 100,000 Afghan refugees. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have resisted requests to accept even small numbers.

The U.S.-led airlift at the Kabul airport flew out more than 120,000 Afghans and foreign citizens in August, some landing in countries such as Uganda and Albania for temporary processing of U.S. visas and others landing at U.S. military bases in various countries. The UK and Canada have announced that they will each admit up to 20,000 Afghan refugees over the coming years. Other Western countries, including Australia, France, Switzerland and Austria, have either refused to take in refugees or remained silent on the issue. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz reflected the views of many conservative European politicians when he announced that his country would not “voluntarily” accept more Afghan refugees.

Can the Taliban’s New Government Manage these Crises?

The Talibans technical capacity to address these challenges is questionable. A three-day meeting of Taliban leaders in Kandahar reportedly discussed social welfare issues but concluded on 31 August with no announcements about how to address the growing humanitarian problems including the risk of economic collapse. One of the Taliban’s first appointments to their de facto authority was a new central bank head, Mohammad Idris, but he arrives in the position with no known education or work experience in overseeing a modern economy. The Taliban’s rudimentary governance of areas under their control or influence during the last two decades did not extend to managing humanitarian and economic matters on anything remotely like the scale of what they are now facing.

One advantage the Taliban might bring to their economic stewardship is a reputation for being less corrupt than their predecessors, but even if they live up to this billing it is not likely to ameliorate the near-term crisis. Another asset will be the longstanding relationships between the Taliban and the businesses and aid agencies that have spent years operating in zones of Taliban control. For example, in the largest non-agricultural employment sector, telecommunications, Crisis Group has learned that early meetings with the Taliban have been constructive and worked toward resolving issues left over from the previous administration. In a country where little else is functional, the mobile phones are still working. Other big businesses are hedging their bets: Kam Air, the largest Afghan airline, is sheltering its aircraft nearby in Iran.

The Taliban will also be constrained by their finances. Under the previous government, 75 per cent of public spending was funded by donors, a resource stream that is now at least indefinitely suspended. Salaries for doctors, teachers and other workers are in jeopardy, as is the ability to finance imports (in a heavily import-dependent economy), after the U.S. froze nearly all the central banks $9.4 billion in reserves. Under pressure from the Biden administration, the International Monetary Fund followed suit by blocking access to emergency reserves of $460 million, and the World Bank suspended all projects. The European Union (EU) suspended €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) in development assistance planned for Afghanistan over the next decade, pending talks with the Taliban.

Such measures are sending financial shock waves through the country. Even before the asset freeze, the price of food had been steadily on the rise, with prices of staples such as wheat, rice, sugar and cooking oil increasing by more than 50 per cent compared with pre-COVID-19 levels. Regular shipments of U.S. dollars to the central bank have stopped, leaving the value of the Afghan currency to slide downward. Western Union has halted transactions to Afghanistan, squeezing international remittances.

How Can Donor States and International Organisations Help?

The speed of the Taliban’s victory surprised the world, leaving a fledgling government in Kabul seeking international recognition from foreign capitals whose attention has so far been focused on evacuations and domestic political fallout. The lack of unanimous support for the minimalist language of the 30 August resolution at the UN Security Council (with China and Russia abstaining) highlights the profound disagreements within the international community over how to deal with the new Taliban regime. Issues of formal recognition, sanctions removal and conditionality for development assistance seem likely to remain mired in debate over the coming months.

It should be somewhat easier to rally the international community behind an immediate agenda of preventing humanitarian disaster. Regional actors want to avoid an utter collapse on their doorstep; European donors are concerned about waves of migrants; and the U.S. may wish to mitigate damage to its reputation after a chaotic exit. The UN is making a “flash appeal” to increase the funds for humanitarian agencies, which have received only 37 per cent of the $1.3 billion identified (before the Taliban takeover) as needed in 2021.

The UN has started taking the practical steps necessary to send additional aid. Taliban leaders met with the World Food Programme’s executive director on 26 August and emerged from the meeting offering “cooperation and security”. UN staff in Kabul had already been holding other meetings with Taliban officials. A UN air bridge from Pakistan started landing cargo planes in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on 30 August, a supply route that is expected to expand with flights to Kabul.

As with other humanitarian operations, however, the UN requires implementing partners and sub-contractors in Afghanistan – and these organisations could be vulnerable to sanctions. The Taliban as a group and elements within it are still sanctioned by the UN, the U.S., and the EU and many of its member states. The UN sanctions regime contains restrictions on any assistance that may benefit the Taliban. At least some within the Group of Seven countries have been calling for further sanctions on the Taliban if the Taliban continue to foster ties with militant groups or violate human rights. Such restrictions could make trucking firms nervous about sending food into the country; sanctions could block Afghan banks from receiving money transfers; and even public utilities could struggle to keep the lights on, because Afghanistan purchases much of its electricity from abroad.

The simplest answer to the sanctions issue – technically, though perhaps not politically – would be delisting the Taliban on humanitarian grounds, following the example of the U.S. delisting of the Huthi rebels in northern Yemen earlier in 2021. Some UN humanitarian officials are hoping to model their response to the Taliban takeover on the effort in Yemen, treating the Taliban as “de facto authorities” and providing aid without conferring recognition. Western diplomats, however, have told Crisis Group that lifting sanctions could be difficult, so a more feasible option might involve “comfort letters” from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Any such measures encouraging humanitarian aid would help with unblocking assistance to the Afghan people.

Recommendations

Both the Taliban and outside powers need to act quickly to ameliorate the humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan, lest it become much worse than it is already. At the moment, the following steps are particularly pressing:

  1. The Taliban must follow through on their promises of unrestricted access for humanitarian workers, without diverting assistance into their own coffers.
  2. The U.S. and the EU, which have been the largest donors over the last twenty years, should make good on their promises of continuing to stand with the Afghan people by convening a virtual donors’ conference to fill the humanitarian assistance funding gaps identified by the UN.
  3. Donors should empower the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of humanitarian actors, taking the lead on coordinating provision of aid with the de facto authorities.
  4. Mechanisms for sanctions waivers, licences or other forms of relief must be established as a matter of urgency – in the short term at least as a way of facilitating aid shipments.
  5. The international community should facilitate the establishment of humanitarian air bridges, and work to enable resumption of civilian air travel as soon as possible.