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Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib
Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib

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

Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib

The Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey succeeded in averting a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue to provide diplomatic support for Turkey and engage directly with Russia to prevent an attack that would likely have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

The 17 September Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey forestalled the Syrian regime’s imminent attack on rebel-held Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in Syria’s north west. The agreement established a 20km buffer zone between rebels and the regime along Idlib’s borders, which was to be emptied of heavy weapons by 10 October. By late October, the agreement’s implementation appeared to be in progress: heavy arms were no longer visible, though it remained unclear if they had been removed. In any event, Russia expressed satisfaction with Turkey’s efforts to demilitarise the zone.

The agreement succeeded in averting – for now – a battle that the UN warned could trigger the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. But while Idlib’s fate remains uncertain, European partners must work to support Turkish efforts to implement the deal’s conditions and sustain a political process while bolstering preparations for managing the humanitarian fallout in the event of an attack, the threat of which remains real.

The EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Keep backing the agreement, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. Europeans should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria, and thus prevent Russia from achieving its political objective – not just the regime’s survival but a settlement that leads to a degree of regime rehabilitation.
     
  • Engage prudently with Russia. The EU should be open to discussing avenues of cooperation with Moscow on Syria, both independently and in support of Turkish initiatives such as its 27 October quartet summit alongside France, Germany and Russia. At the same time it should resist Moscow’s efforts to accelerate the provision of European reconstruction assistance in the absence of any political progress.
     
  • Press Russia to continue to show flexibility with Turkey as it proceeds with implementing the commitment it made in Sochi in September. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey and, if necessary, condition future cooperation with Russia on such Russian flexibility.
     
  • Encourage Turkey to continue its own humanitarian preparations in the event of an attack on Idlib, including planning, building aid infrastructure, and pre-positioning assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Urge Turkey to coordinate its humanitarian response with international allies. Europeans should ask Turkey to share more information, specifically about its security operations in Idlib that restrict humanitarian access. If the Syrian regime attacks Idlib, Turkey’s allies will be more effective partners if they have jointly planned and prepared.
     
  • Urge Turkey to allow humanitarian action in Turkish-controlled Aleppo independent of Turkish state and para-state bodies. Turkey may be uncomfortable with allowing autonomous relief actors into an area it is keen to keep under control, but otherwise Europeans and others cannot support its aid efforts.
Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s provisions.

Sochi’s Origins and Stakes

Several factors enabled the Sochi agreement, notably Turkey’s strong indications it would resist an Idlib offensive – including its decision to send considerable addi-tional weapons to Syrian rebels in Idlib – and U.S. pressure. Arguably most im-portant was Ankara signalling to Moscow that an offensive would end Turkish-Russian cooperation on a political settlement. As one of the guarantors (together with Russia and Iran) of the Astana process, Turkey remains central to Russia’s ef-forts to find a political resolution to Syria’s war. Russia needs Turkish buy-in if it hopes to crown its military success with some international re-legitimisation of the Syrian regime and secure outside funds for the country’s reconstruction. 

Along with the U.S., EU member states provided important diplomatic backing to Turkey in support of an Idlib deal. Emphatic public European opposition to an assault and energetic, direct diplomacy with Russia by EU member states con-vinced Moscow that an all-out attack would seriously damage cooperation on Syria. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s pro-visions and, through direct channels with Russia, stress that a humanitarian disas-ter that displaces more refugees (and some militants) into Turkey and Europe di-rectly prejudices European interests. EU member states should make clear that an attack on Idlib would poison further cooperation and cripple Syria’s political pro-cess, on which major reconstruction funds depend. 

The Potential Humanitarian Catastrophe 

The priority for Europeans and others must be preventing an attack on Idlib, as the humanitarian impact would outstrip even the best-planned and well-resourced re-sponse. But the EU should also anticipate the worst case scenario, namely the So-chi deal’s collapse and an ensuing regime offensive. The EU needs to ensure it is prepared to the extent possible, helping humanitarian partners plan and pre-position supplies and funding the humanitarian response. 

Turkey has been undertaking emergency preparations, though it has not always publicised them for fear of undermining good faith efforts at de-escalation. Yet its limited communication prevents donors and their international NGO partners from effectively coordinating and planning their contribution to a relief effort. Turkey has also restricted independent access for international organisations to the parts of Aleppo governorate it controls. Humanitarian capacity is already stretched in these areas, which are the likeliest destination for Idlib’s residents if they have to flee.

Europeans must continue to appeal to Turkey to share information on their ef-forts in Idlib in order for other donors and humanitarians to appropriately plan. And the EU needs to push Turkey to allow independent humanitarian action inside Turkish-controlled Aleppo, where, if Idlib is attacked, Turkey will be unable to sin-glehandedly meet vulnerable Syrians’ urgent needs.