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Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx
Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx
Five Steps to Save Yemen’s Stockholm Agreement
Five Steps to Save Yemen’s Stockholm Agreement
Crowds of Syrian refugees wait to enter Lebanon at a border point in eastern Bekaa. 22 January 2013. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx

Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, more refugees per capita than anywhere in the world. International support is needed to keep this fragile country from reaching the breaking point.

Lebanon, a small country whose population hovered around four million, has gained an astounding million and a half more residents in under four years, mostly refugees from neighbouring Syria. By contrast, the U.S. government proudly announced that it reached its target this year of granting asylum to 10,000 Syrians – to be settled in a population of more than 320 million – in the face of opposition from citizens worried about a flood of refugees and migrants. 

Any serious attempt to deal with the global refugee crisis should acknowledge these startling disparities. The UN and U.S. are hosting back-to-back summit meetings on the refugee emergency on 19-20 September in New York, but advocates are pessimistic that the discussions will result in more equitable resettlement among the world's richest countries or adequate support to front-line states.
 
To frame an international response commensurate with the Syrian catastrophe, it is vital to understand what is happening in a front-line state like Lebanon. As the Syrian war escalated, Syrians began fleeing primarily to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon, in particular, received the swiftest and largest refugee influx in its history. Around one million are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while an additional 500,000 unregistered refugees, migrant workers and wealthier Syrians have melted into the local population. 

Such a sudden influx would pose a big challenge to any country, but Lebanon is without an effective government or significant resources, and has historically been unstable. Its resilience so far in the face of this shockwave is therefore remarkable. Yet the inflow has exposed a series of worrying fault lines. 

The state’s endemic dysfunction is glaring: Syrian refugees arrived in a country sunk in a deep malaise. In recent years, Lebanese politicians have been unable to agree on electing a president or holding parliamentary elections, or even on a policy to collect garbage from city streets, whose pungent smell wafted through the capital last year. In view of such a dismal state of affairs, seeing the government implement a policy to address the refugee crisis would have been nothing less than a miracle. 

Beirut’s default response of inaction has had serious consequences. In the absence of official camps established specifically for refugees, the majority of Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon’s most deprived areas. This has put new strains on places that already lacked infrastructure and whose population was already struggling. Gradually, and not surprisingly, host communities have become resentful toward the refugees. In turn, many Lebanese officials have used the refugee issue to deflect criticism for the state’s failings, further feeding tensions. 

Changing demographic realities are another source of concern. The arrival of refugees who are, for the most part Sunni Muslims, has alarmed Christians, Shias and Druze eager to preserve a delicate sectarian balance in a multiconfessional political system. Even Lebanese Sunnis, however, share their compatriots’ concerns about an enduring refugee presence. The refugee crisis has produced an uncommon consensus among Lebanon’s communities: everyone blames the Syrians for the country’s many ills. 

Add to this Lebanon’s history with Palestinian refugees, estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 and mostly living in camps created after 1948. What was envisioned as short-term refuge turned into a seemingly permanent exile for these Palestinians, whose militarisation became a major trigger for the civil war a generation ago. As the Syrian war continues without an immediate end in sight, there are concerns that Syrian refugees may likewise become a long-term presence.

The spectre of renewed conflict has led the Lebanese authorities to adopt a heavy-handed security approach toward the refugees. They have repeatedly raided whatever encampments exist and arrested hundreds of men. Moreover, they have allowed local councils to impose discriminatory measures, such as night-time curfews, on Syrians. 

Lebanon needs help to cope with the refugee crisis, both to aid Syrian refugees and to preserve the unity of the state. What refugees need most immediately is an easing of visa requirements to regularise their status. The international community should focus on long-term development projects that would benefit both Syrians and deprived host communities. Moreover, it should condition any security assistance to the army and police – the only functioning parts of the state – on the conduct of these forces toward the refugees in a manner consistent with international law and human rights standards.

If the world stands by as Lebanon dissolves under the extraordinary burden it has shouldered with remarkable magnanimity, we may be confronted with a much greater international refugee crisis – as well as new rounds of violence, which in turn will generate more refugees. 

Dutch General Patrick Cammaert, who is leading a joint committee of government and rebel representatives, tasked with overseeing a truce in the Red Sea port city and the withdrawal of both parties, speaks with an official in Hodeidah on 13 January 2019 AFP

Five Steps to Save Yemen’s Stockholm Agreement

The Stockholm Agreement, though imprecise, offers a real shot at building a peace process for war-ravaged Yemen. But the accord is faltering amid mutual recriminations. The UN, and the wider international community, should act now to make sure the combatants follow through on their commitments.

In December 2018, representatives of Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the rebel Huthi movement did something unexpected: they agreed on something. At UN-mediated talks in Sweden, the two parties announced what is now known as the Stockholm Agreement.

You can read our analysis of the agreement here, but its key components were a prisoner swap, an agreement for mutual redeployments from Hodeida – the port, the city and environs – and a commitment to discuss de-escalation at another front-line city, Taiz. The Hodeida agreement in particular was vital. A battle around this Red Sea port threatened to cut off a trade route that accounts for 70 per cent of key goods shipped into Yemen, thereby pushing the country into famine.

A month on, the momentum behind the Stockholm Agreement is flagging as the rivals exchange mutual recriminations and the UN struggles to get them to follow through on their pledges to redeploy from Hodeida. With the deadline for redeployments now past – they were scheduled for completion by 8 January – speculation is mounting that the deal may be on the verge of collapse.

The Stockholm Agreement is imperfect and imprecise, but it was hard-won. If it is allowed to break down, there will be no opportunity for a similar deal for a long time. Here are five steps the UN, and the wider international community, should urgently take to safeguard the accord and move its provisions forward.

1.     Prevent a Collapse

The Yemeni government claims that the Huthis have violated a ceasefire announced on 18 December hundreds of times. The Huthis have made similar claims about their adversaries. In a note to the UN Security Council based on reporting from Patrick Cammaert (the retired Dutch marine who, on the UN’s behalf, is leading negotiations on redeployments and assessing the situation in Hodeida in preparation for a monitoring mission), Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out that despite exchanges of fire, neither side had attempted to make new territorial gains.

Given the nature of the forces of the ground, and the fact that the Stockholm Agreement does not include any definition of the ceasefire, little more can be expected for the time being. More worrying are the ongoing provocations of the Huthis in particular, and the rapidly escalating war of words among the Huthis, the government, the Saudi-led coalition and their various media proxies.

On 29 December, after an abortive UN attempt to get the parties to temporarily reopen the Sanaa-Hodeida road as part of a confidence-building measure, the Huthis unilaterally announced their redeployment from Red Sea ports, reportedly refusing to allow a UN convoy to leave the city via the Sanaa road. It was a disingenuous announcement. As many observers noted, the group appeared to simply hand out uniforms to their supporters at the port and claim that they were autonomous local security forces, asking the UN to verify a “redeployment” of forces. Cammaert refused to oblige.

The Huthis then boycotted an 8 January meeting of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, the body chaired by Cammaert and tasked with agreeing on how to manage force redeployments from in and around Hodeida. They cited security concerns, arguing that the meeting would have taken place in territory controlled by their adversaries. The Yemeni government argued that the claim was spurious, given that their representatives had crossed the front lines to meet the Huthis in territory they controlled on two previous occasions. Cammaert subsequently met with the Yemeni government and the Huthis at separate locations.

So far, the UN has argued that the post-Stockholm gunfire and shelling are relatively minor breaches, and that neither side has attempted to take new ground, which would be a grave infraction.

Confidence declined further after a series of Huthi attacks on high-profile targets far from Hodeida, including a United Arab Emirates (UAE) base in Mokha (hit by a Huthi missile), a Yemeni government-run military facility in Lahj governorate and sites inside Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Saudi-led coalition has ratcheted up its rhetoric in what many believe is preparation for a return to hostilities. It is also allegedly bulking up its forces at key positions on the Red Sea coast, including Mokha. While not all these actions are violations of the ceasefire agreement (in many cases, the Huthi attacks occurred outside its geographic scope), they are highly provocative.

The UN and the wider international community should press each side to immediately halt moves that seem designed to provoke the other to walk away from the agreement. They also need to start implementing the accord, which will require securing greater cooperation from the Huthis first and foremost (more on how to do this below).

2.     Sort Out the Ceasefire’s Terms and Enforce It

After the Sweden talks, the UN was forced to hastily organise a truce in Hodeida governorate that started on 18 December. But the parties did not agree to ground rules. Unlike most ceasefire agreements, this one did not include technical details on the scope, nature or duration of the halt to hostilities; definition of breaches; or mechanisms for quickly stopping fighting if it breaks out anew. Failure to achieve such an agreement – in all likelihood due to the urgency of getting a deal – has had damaging consequences. Compounding the problem, the UN has yet to deploy a full-scale monitoring team – which will require Security Council approval – leaving the ceasefire’s fate vulnerable to the war of narratives that plagued attempts at building a peace process in the first place.

So far, the UN has argued that the post-Stockholm gunfire and shelling are relatively minor breaches, and that neither side has attempted to take new ground, which would be a grave infraction. But the government has accused the Huthis of erecting barricades across Hodeida while the rebels have alleged that coalition troop build-ups are occurring around the city and further down the Red Sea coast. Both claims, which would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Stockholm Agreement, appear credible.

The UN deployed a team in December to assess the situation in Hodeida, monitor it as best possible and start talks between rival commanders over redeployments. But to date the team has been unable to adjudicate the ceasefire or gauge the level of adherence to the deal. Doing so will require a clear set of rules governing the ceasefire, along with detailed knowledge of troop positions and a skilled technical team able to assess alleged violations. The Redeployment Coordination Committee, which is comprised of an equal number of Huthi and Yemeni government military representatives, can lay out the ground rules. The UN team will also need freedom of movement around Hodeida, something they have yet to achieve due to objections from the Huthis, who again cite security concerns.

Another core component of this process will be setting up a full monitoring mission. In December, the Security Council permitted the deployment of the initial assessment team and Guterres subsequently sent its members a proposal for the full mission, to be composed of up to 75 people. A vote on a resolution approving his request is expected before 18 January. The UN will then need to hire monitors, deploy them to the field and work out how best to assess ceasefire compliance.

Finally, once all the preceding has happened, the UN will need to decide how to ensure accountability. Cammaert, who combines the roles of military coordinator, planner and monitor, reports to the secretary-general weekly. Once rules are established and a monitoring mission is in place, he will be much better positioned to provide a fair assessment of what is happening on the ground. His regular reports will make it easier to publicly hold the parties to account.

3.     Achieve a Detailed Agreement on Redeployments

The Huthis maintain that they have moved their main fighting forces out of Hodeida, Ras Issa and Salif ports. This claim, however, is based on their interpretation of the Stockholm Agreement, which differs sharply from the Yemeni government’s and the coalition’s. The Stockholm Agreement left vague the question of which “local forces” should control the ports after a redeployment, and the redeployment committee has yet to agree on what constitutes a redeployment, who should secure the facilities and how to verify that a handover has taken place. In essence, these loopholes left the Huthis free to hand over the ports to themselves.

Reaching an understanding on these matters is an urgent task. It would be a huge step forward, demonstrating the parties’ ability and willingness, even if grudging, to keep their word. It would also be a big win for the UN’s credibility as a mediator. Failure to do so would have the opposite effect.

Even before considering the animosity between the parties, this timeframe was unrealistic from a purely logistical point of view.

Getting there is likely to involve both a technical component, led by Cammaert, and a political aspect led by Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy who brokered the Stockholm Agreement. Griffiths has sustained a punishing travel schedule as he meets with senior Huthi leaders, Yemeni government officials and coalition officials, extracting renewed commitments to the process. The UN also needs to redraw the timelines for redeployments agreed upon in Sweden, which were set at 21 days from the announcement of the ceasefire, meaning that the deadline passed on 8 January. Even before considering the animosity between the parties, this timeframe was unrealistic from a purely logistical point of view. It will likely be up to Griffiths to get the Huthis and the government to agree to a schedule that acknowledges the urgency of the task at hand, but gives Cammaert a decent amount of time to carry it out. To regain lost momentum, the focus for now should be on getting an agreement about genuine Huthi redeployments from the ports and putting it into practice.

4.     Crack the Huthi Nut

In the run-up to the Sweden talks, the international community’s biggest challenge was getting the Yemeni government to agree to a deal on Hodeida, with the endorsement of Saudi Arabia, the government’s main foreign sponsor, and the UAE, the Red Sea coast campaign’s effective commander. In the end, it was reportedly a last-gasp phone call from James Mattis, then-US defense secretary, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that pushed the deal over the line. We now know that the U.S. can exert pressure and that it can work. But future pressure seems less likely now that Mattis is gone and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who sees Yemen largely through the lens of countering Iran, is likely to take the lead on Yemen policy.

Both sides are likely to attempt to spoil the agreement. At this stage, however, the Huthis are the principal obstacle to progress. By the Stockholm Agreement’s terms, the Huthis have to make the first move by redeploying forces from the three major Red Sea ports; then, both sides have to make a series of mutual redeployments from critical humanitarian infrastructure and eventually from the entire city to yet-to-be-designated positions, effectively demilitarising the entire Red Sea trade corridor.

For sceptical Yemenis, there are echoes of September 2014 events in how the Huthis have dealt with the Stockholm Agreement. At that time, the Huthis had just overrun the capital, Sanaa, and other northern governorates. They signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, which called for their forces’ phased withdrawal back to their mountain strongholds. But after signing the deal, the Huthis ignored the pullout requirement, arguing that the men at checkpoints on the streets were not their fighters but supportive citizens from autonomous “popular committees”. By the following January the rebels had placed Yemen’s transitional president, Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, under house arrest as their slow-rolling coup tipped an already divided country into civil strife.

A similar outcome must be avoided at all costs, again raising the question of what tools diplomats have at their disposal to extract concessions from the Huthis. The coalition argues, with some justification, that the Huthis relented in Sweden only because they were under military pressure around Hodeida. But turning up that pressure – a coalition invasion of the port and city – would come at an inordinate human cost.

There are other means of pressing the Huthis. An honest, public accounting of what is happening in Hodeida would be a good start. Cammaert is widely viewed as principled and highly capable, and his reporting to the UN secretary-general on redeployment negotiations and the monitoring mission will help cut through the media noise from the rival camps. Such an accounting would put more pressure on the Huthis to comply with their commitments, as they would run the risk of seeing significant parts of international public opinion – which they have tried to use as a tool throughout the war – turn against them.

As Crisis Group has noted before, the EU and Oman have good contacts with the Huthis, and Iran has repeatedly offered to play a mediating role in Yemen. Now would be a good moment for Tehran to prove its willingness and ability to convince the Huthis to engage constructively on Hodeida, first and foremost by allowing Cammaert’s team freedom of movement in the territory they hold and by encouraging quick, meaningful and verifiable redeployment from the three ports. Brussels and Muscat can also help by engaging with the Huthis in Sanaa and abroad, pressing the case for redeployments, and making clear that their patience is wearing thin. In his most recent trip to Sanaa, Griffiths pushed Abdel-Malek al-Huthi, the rebel leader, to reiterate his commitment to the agreement, including redeployment. While Cammaert hashes out technical details, such continued high-level pressure on Huthi, government and coalition officials to stick to their commitments will be important.

5.     Maintain International Focus and Consensus

The Stockholm Agreement was the result of a confluence of events. These include the global outcry over the murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October, triggering U.S. Congressional action on Yemen, and the looming threat of all-out famine. Even then, what came out of Sweden had many flaws.

Now may be the UN’s last shot at building momentum behind a peace process for some time to come.

Yet the process initiated in Sweden prevented a bloodbath in Hodeida and, for now, the onset of widespread starvation – though the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is already the world’s worst. If the Stockholm Agreement can be implemented fully and the envoy’s office can make progress on swapping prisoners and ending the battle for Taiz, the conflict will essentially freeze in place and the UN’s credibility as a mediator will grow considerably.

Now may be the UN’s last shot at building momentum behind a peace process for some time to come. Mattis’s exit at the end of December removed one of the few U.S. policymakers with a nuanced view of the Yemen war, and perhaps the only Trump administration official who enjoyed both trust in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and effective leverage over the Gulf monarchies. If the Stockholm Agreement collapses, Mattis’s absence is likely to be keenly felt if and when the parties return to the table.

Making the most of the Stockholm Agreement will require international consensus around the process, particularly at the UN Security Council, which almost certainly will have to authorise repeated expansions of the UN’s mandate in Yemen. To succeed, the Security Council members will need to avoid the terse, drawn-out negotiations between the UK and the U.S. over humanitarian issues and language on Iran that almost derailed passage of the resolution backing the Stockholm Agreement and sending Cammaert to Yemen in December. Too much is at stake for squabbles at the Security Council to stand in the way of genuine progress toward a full ceasefire.