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Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

Too Close For Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon

As the Syrian conflict increasingly implicates and spills over into Lebanon, a priority for its government and international partners must be to tackle the refugee crisis, lest it ignite domestic conflict that a weak state and volatile region can ill afford.

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Executive Summary

Syria’s conflict is dragging down its neighbours, none more perilously than Lebanon. Beirut’s official policy of “dissociation” – seeking, by refraining from taking sides, to keep the war at arm’s length – is right in theory but increasingly dubious in practice. Porous boundaries, weapons smuggling, deepening involvement by anti-Syrian-regime Sunni Islamists on one side and the pro-regime Hizbollah on the other, and cross-border skirmishes, all atop a massive refugee inflow, implicate Lebanon ever more deeply in the conflict next door. It probably is unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to take a step back; Syria’s fate, they feel, is their own, and stakes are too high for them to keep to the sidelines. But it ought not be unrealistic to expect them – and their international partners – to adopt a more forward-looking approach to a refugee crisis that risks tearing apart their own country’s economic, social and political fabric, igniting a new domestic conflict that a weak Lebanese state and volatile region can ill afford.

This is a story numbers tell best. Over one million Syrians are in Lebanon – registered and unregistered refugees, as well as migrant workers and others. That figure – more than 25 per cent as great as the approximately four-million citizen population million– is rising and likely will soar if and when the battle for Damascus is fully joined. It would be staggering anywhere but is truly frightening when one considers the state’s institutional frailty, meagre resources and, perhaps above all, highly sensitive sectarian balance. Unsurprisingly, the government – divided and polarised, on this issue as on most others – was slow off the mark.

The day-to-day impact is palpable. The demographic change can be felt in virtually all aspects of life, from the omnipresent Syrian dialect, to worsening traffic congestion, mounting housing prices and rising delinquency. Yet, the refugees do not pose a humanitarian problem alone. Their presence also has been politically deeply polarising. The vast majority are Sunnis who back the uprising. Most Lebanese view the conflict through a sectarian prism, and thus their attitude toward refugees from the outset has largely been informed by confessional considerations, as well as by their potential security impact and implications for future domestic politics.

Refugees generally have moved to hospitable, predominantly Sunni areas. Even there, however, patience is beginning to wear thin. Hatred for the Syrian regime remains acute and tends to dominate other feelings. Still, there is growing anger at the fact that they are attracting Syrian fire by providing succour and cover to anti-regime rebels. Besides, a history of stereotypes is at play: as many Lebanese see them, Syrians fall into broad categories: low-income, poorly uneducated, menial workers, criminals or abusive security officers and soldiers. Complaints go both ways: from Lebanese who fault their guests for introducing greater insecurity, to Syrians who accuse Lebanese of disrespecting, exploiting or even assaulting them. Street fights and criminality have trended upwards.

Hostility and suspicion are far more discernible among Shiites and Christians. In predominantly Shiite areas now witnessing refugee arrivals, many local residents express concern that the numbers could grow, while Hizbollah fears that refugees’ anti-regime sentiment could be a prelude to activism against the movement itself. Many Christians feel even more vulnerable, alarmed at a demographic balance that continuously tilts against them. The current human wave harkens back to the community’s experience with Palestinian refugees whose initial, theoretically short-term resettlement turned into a massive, largely Sunni, long-lasting, militarised presence. And it feeds into a more general belief that Lebanon’s Sunni community – more specifically, Islamists in its midst – are being empowered, riding an irresistible regional tide.

The refugee issue is only one aspect of a far broader challenge Lebanon faces as a result of the Syrian conflict. The political demography of the area that includes the two countries is shifting as borders become ever more permeable. Lebanese Islamic organisations set up to assist Syrian refugees also are instruments of socialisation; they threaten to radicalise a generation of Syrians, inculcating militant anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite outlooks. Sunni Islamist militants in Lebanon smuggle weapons and join their Syrian brethren’s struggle in what has become jihadis’ destination of choice. There is risk of blowback: once their work in Syria is done, they might well turn their sights back home.

If anything, Hizbollah’s involvement is more intense. What began as relatively modest help to the regime over time has mushroomed into what now appears to be direct, comprehensive, full-fledged and less and less concealed military support. Israel’s recent (officially unconfirmed) air attacks against targets in Syria – supposedly Iranian arms shipments destined to the Shiite movement – and heightened Hizbollah rhetoric reflect growing possibilities of regional entanglement involving Lebanon. All in all, even as the government in Beirut hangs on to its policy of dissociation, non-state actors hardly feel so constrained. Lebanon’s hopes of being immune to the conflict have been brushed aside by domestic parties for whom its outcome is quasi-existential.

Historically, and to a far greater extent than any other neighbour, Lebanon’s fate has been deeply intertwined with Syria’s. As Syria heads even more steadily toward catastrophe, there is every reason for Lebanese of all persuasions to worry about their own country – and to do something about it. Regrettably, it is likely too late for them to wind back the clock and revert to a policy of non-interference in the Syrian war. But if the country’s various political forces cannot agree on what to do in Syria, at least they might agree on a sensible approach toward the refugee tragedy. A population influx of such magnitude would be a huge problem anywhere. In Lebanon – with fragile institutions and infrastructure; a delicate political and sectarian balance; tense social fabric; and declining economy, all of which the refugee crisis worsens – it is a nightmare.

Beirut/Brussels, 13 May 2013

Security forces push anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on 31 January 2021 amid clashes. Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP

Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

Four days of violent unrest in Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern coast could presage more to come, as a new coronavirus outbreak deepens the country’s severe socio-economic crisis. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to keep the worst-case scenarios at bay.

Starting on 25 January, residents of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli took to the streets over four consecutive days. Many protested peacefully, but some attacked government buildings and clashed with security personnel, who fired upon them with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Rioters torched the historic municipality headquarters, vandalised the Sunni religious court and government administration building, and hurled Molotov cocktails and, according to authorities, hand grenades at the security forces. By 31 January, the toll was one protester dead and more than 400 injured, along with at least 40 soldiers and police. Lebanese army and military intelligence units detained at least 25 men for their roles in the events. Lebanon’s international partners should continue pressing its elites to chart a viable path forward, while redoubling humanitarian assistance to an increasingly desperate population.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections. The restrictions have left many unable to sustain themselves, mainly because the lockdown is only the latest in a series of calamities that have hit the majority of Lebanese since 2019. In that period, at least 500,000 have lost their businesses and jobs. The local currency’s value has dropped by more than 80 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. People have lost billions in savings and, according to the World Bank, more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. Government officials estimate that some 75 per cent of Lebanese nationals need aid. Among the more than one million Syrian refugees living in the country, as many as 90 per cent require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Tripoli and its surroundings are among the poorest areas of Lebanon, but hardship is worsening across the country. In their actions and responses, protesters, rioters and security forces in the city may have provided a preview of what awaits most of Lebanon in the months to come. During interviews conducted by Crisis Group over the past three months, Lebanese officials, political party operatives, political activists, security officers and NGO representatives across Lebanon all expressed similar fears: if the downward economic slide continues, or austerity measures such as subsidy cuts cause a sudden increase in social pressures, the country may become dangerously unstable.

Foremost among the challenges Lebanon faces are the stress on and erosion of state institutions, as inflation devalues public-sector salaries and already perfunctory services disappear altogether. Over the past months, tensions triggered or amplified by the crisis have repeatedly erupted in security incidents that appear isolated but, taken together, seem to indicate a worrying trend. Security forces, which number more than 130,000 with an additional hundreds of thousands of dependents, may increasingly struggle to preserve order, prevent violence and protect property. They may find themselves becoming the face of state failure, as they compensate for the absence of policy and governance by policing people whose grievances they share. As security deteriorates, political parties, local strongmen and business tycoons will step into the gap. 

Even the army has been under stress and may soon lose its lustre as one of Lebanon’s most capable and least partisan public institutions. Like civil servants, teachers and police, soldiers today earn a fraction of what they did a year ago, many as little as the equivalent of $150 per month. Even senior officers are expressing concern about their personal and institutional futures. As one told Crisis Group: “[The army] will abide by its mission, but at the end of the day, these soldiers are children of their society and environment. [Officers’] own sons and daughters are studying abroad and [we] can’t pay tuition anymore”.

No relief should be expected from politicians. Six months after the catastrophic blast in the Beirut port that brought down the previous government, they have yet to form a new one, much less engage in fundamental reforms required to unlock international assistance or explore long-range initiatives to create opportunities for development and investment. Political elites will more likely behave as they have in the past: buying time with money that is not theirs; distributing benefits narrowly and burdens broadly; and working to salvage the system that keeps them in power. In the improbable event that some Lebanese leaders come to their senses or that a future cabinet moves to act, vested interests and a low capacity for governance will stand in their way. Meanwhile, external partners such as the U.S., European states and Arab countries remain determined to withhold non-humanitarian assistance unless Lebanese leaders shape up. They are right to do so. Lebanon will escape its predicament only if and when its political elites change their behaviour, which has created the crisis.

Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency.

Until such time, however, Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency. On 30 January, the World Bank signed an agreement with the caretaker government for a loan of $246 million to provide cash assistance to some 800,000 of the poorest Lebanese. International donors should increase funding for humanitarian purposes and aim to reach as many beneficiaries as possible directly. Lebanon’s external partners should also consider deepening their cooperation with different security agencieswhile taking steps to minimise any danger that protests prompt unnecessarily tough policing. Outside cooperation would allow those agencies to help preserve order and avoid the proliferation of protests and local tensions into widespread unrest and violence. Lebanon’s international partners can help stop the country’s crisis from getting worse, but to do so, they must act now.