Regional Merry-Go-Round – While Key Issues Continue to Dog Lebanon’s Government in Formation, End to Syria’s Civil War in Sight

The muddle called the Middle East gets murkier

It has long been said somewhat cynically that Lebanon’s raison d’etre is to serve as the proxy battlefield for everything in contention in the region and beyond. Certainly, contemporary events bear that out as PM Saad Hariri struggles to build consensus around a new government and ministerial statement while regional players continue to shuffle the policy cards to determine what’s next on their agendas.

Distinctions between the players’ existential concerns and their dominate current interests are muddled at best. The Assad regime draws closer to its immediate goal of restoring its punishing control over Syria; Iran seeks to strengthen its regional role despite rising domestic opposition; Turkey is…well Turkey; Russia and Israel look to their interests with fervor; and the Syrian refugees await their fate.

Here’s a quick summary of several current events that are adding to the continued uncertainty despite the latest battlefield outcomes in Syria, a small détente between Israel and Syrian government forces near its borders, Syrian refugees moving in larger numbers back home, and Hezbollah’s quest for meaning after Syria.

Lebanon-Syria relations, always contentious, seem to be the chicken bone in the throat of PR Hariri. Despite prodding from Speaker Nabih Berri, pro-Syrian members of Parliament, Gebran Bassil, the acting Foreign Minister and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, and others, the PM is standing his ground that the ministerial statement, which outlines the new government’s priorities, will not address restarting formal relations with Syria. Can he hold out? There’s no immediate consensus as there are other MPs supporting the PM. Proponents of the move argue that the step is needed to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, re-open border crossings to allow goods to transit to export markets to Lebanon’s neighbors, and potentially give Lebanon a piece of the Syrian reconstruction pie.

Syria meanwhile seems to be holding refugee repatriation hostage to resuming relations. Over the past two weeks, a number of statements have come from Syrian sources, as well as its friends in Lebanon, that formal relations are the key to accelerating recent repatriation actions. It is worth noting that despite allegations that the Assad regime has a list of a million or so unwanted returnees, it also craves to be recognized as a legitimate government that can manage the resettlement process.

The reality though may be much different, and Russia has already indicating that it will play a key role as well so that it can task the international community with the cost of reconstruction in exchange for pressuring Syria to work with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey on refugee issues. So, as reported by Refugees Deeply,Russia and Syria are seeking bilateral agreements to begin mass returns. This could be disastrous given that the Syrian government and its allies lack the capacity and perhaps the will to enable refugees to return safely and reintegrate into the country.”

The UNHCR is directly bound up in this quagmire as it serves as the mediating body for the international community on refugee affairs. It has outlined its criteria for conditions required to move ahead with large-scale voluntary repatriations in cooperation with the Syrian government. To date, however, the regime has imposed restrictions on UNHCR activities in Syria, which could leave returnees without adequate aid and exposed to more danger.

While some analysts believe that Russia and the US are winding down their roles in Syria, Israel is exerting greater efforts to ensure that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah do not become an even greater security threat. Israel is concerned with Iran’s role in the region, especially the increasing stocks of various grades and types of Iranian-supplied missiles in Lebanon and Syria; thus its insistence on Iran’s withdrawal from all of Syria. As Stratfor notes, “On the diplomatic front, Israel has focused its approach on the United States and Russia, striving to convince the two superpowers to heed its interests in Syria by containing and limiting Iran’s influence and presence in the country.”

What’s in the cards for Hezbollah’s hands in Syria and Lebanon is a subject of much speculation. Will it return to its traditional role as a political-military state within a state in Lebanon? Will it maintain a presence in Syria to enable Iran to continue to have a pressure point on Israel? Will it maintain an aggressive posture towards Israel so that Israel leans on Russia and the US to exercise what little leverage they have over the Iran-Hezbollah axis to keep tensions from boiling over?

If it remains in Syria, deployed in areas under its control, it is hard to imagine that, despite its alliance with Assad, the Syrian regime will allow it to exercise the same freedom it has in Lebanon. According to an article in, “There is no withdrawal for now, only redeployments of troops in the various areas,” said one source. “If the situation stabilizes definitely, Hezbollah would pull out from certain regions, but there are areas it considers strategic that it will never leave.”

Nicholas Blanford, longtime journalist based in Beirut, describes the link between Hezbollah’s presence in Syria and Iran’s regional game plan. “Iran will play the long game in southwest Syria by relying either on Hezbollah or Iraqi militant groups. Tehran will also want to extend what Hezbollah has on its Lebanese frontier with Israel, to the Golan, and leverage southwest Syria in its confrontation with Israel in the long run. Iran is trying to shape its strategic interests in Syria as time passes by, to maintain its land bridge there against Israel.”

Ironically, Russia, which, it can be argued, saved the Assad regime, seems to risk a diminishing influence on Iran and Syria as it draws down its military role in the region. Having gained basing rights in Syria, the acknowledgement of all the local players that it is the top player in the region, and with its finger on any eventual peace and reconstruction effort, it is loath to act against Iran in Syria. As Blanford noted, “Israel and the US seem hopeful that Russia will serve as a block to Iranian ambitions in Syria, but this could be wishful thinking.”

So is the other great power, the US, still searching for a regional strategy? It appears that the Trump Administration has conceded that the war in Syria is now at a stage where the US should move on to focus on a formal end to the civil war and reconstruction. Jim Jeffrey, former US Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), who served as the principal DAS for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, and deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, has been appointed as Representative for Syrian Engagement by Secretary Pompeo. His job is to run US negotiations with other regional players over Syria’s future.

He has extensive experience in the region that should serve him well. As Ambassador to Iraq, he opposed the US withdrawal from the country under the Obama Administration, arguing that without a tangible presence in country that Iran’s influence would prevail. So he has no illusions about Iran’s regional ambitions.

One of his first challenges is to ensure that the latest deal made by the Administration, to have others pay for Syria’s stabilization fund, is carried out effectively. In announcing the US cut of its commitment of $230 million in stabilization assistance, the State Department pointed out that the Gulf States and others have agreed to fund the program. Stabilization aid is intended to provide basic services that allow Syrian residents to return to their homes and some semblance of normal life after a devastating seven-year civil war. reported that the “US has elicited approximately $300 million in contributions and pledges from coalition partners to support critical stabilization and early recovery initiatives in areas liberated from [the Islamic State (IS)] in northeast Syria, including a generous contribution of $100 million by Saudi Arabia and $50 million pledged by the United Arab Emirates.” Other commitments have been made by Kuwait, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway, the European Union, Australia. and Taiwan.

At the same time, a post noted that The US has also made it clear that “There will be no global reconstruction funding for Syria until a ‘credible and irreversible’ political process led by the United Nations is underway.” The State Department emphasized that “We will continue to provide life-saving, needs-based humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Syrians, support for the White Helmets and the UN’s International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to hold the [Syrian President Bashar] Assad regime accountable for serious crimes, as well as equipment and other measures to counter the effects of chemical weapons in northwest Syria.”

The spokesperson, Heather Nauert, explained that the decision “does not represent any lessening of US commitment to its strategic goals in Syria.” Which again raises the earlier question, does the US have a viable regional strategy that represents its long-term interests in the region?



World Refugee Day Challenges Our Humanitarian Sensibilities

While I have often expressed my thoughts about the Syrian, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, even including the burdens carried by Jordan and Palestine, it is only a starting point for recognizing the awful global conditions of refugees, internally displaced peoples, undocumented migrants, and stateless people that live in all corners of the globe.

You have heard the numbers and they are all horrific, no matter how your rationalize them. For example, The Guardian published a list of the 34,351 people known to have died trying to reach Europe since the early 1990s. Ironically, according to, The UN defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” As of May, an estimated 25.4 million refugees around the globe have fled their homes to escape violence and persecution.

Yet the day is not for mourning, as notes, “It’s a day that the United Nations created to celebrate the resilience and courage of refugees and their contributions to society.” That is small comfort to the tens of millions of refugees, many fleeing persecution because of ethnic, religion, tribal, or other confrontations over identity.

More facts from the same story. By the end of last year, according to a recent UNHCR report, there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including 25.4 million refugees. The number also includes about 40 million internally displaced people — people who were forced to leave their homes but are still in their home countries — and 3.1 million asylum seekers, or people who have applied for refugee status but are waiting for approval.

2017 was the sixth consecutive year that the number of forcibly displaced people in the world surpassed peak World War II levels, and this year’s reports indicate that that number is probably going to keep going up. The majority of refugees right now are from Syria, where 6.3 million people have fled their country to escape the ongoing conflict there. European countries have also taken in asylum seekers from several other countries, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

So how is it possible to celebrate resilience and courage when refugees face separation from their families, may be interred in inhospitable facilities, and deprived of basic services and support? It is more an observance of the survival instincts of the human condition, both for the refugees and for their host communities when they open their homes and share their resources with strangers.

So while the Lebanese, Turks, Jordanians, Malays, Colombians, Ugandans, Pakistanis, and others are bearing the burdens of those less fortunate, the US and Europe, most recently Italy, are responding by shutting down their borders. Here’s a snapshot worth pondering: Last September, the US dropped the refugee cap, which is the maximum number of refugees from anywhere to the US to just 45,000 people, the lowest number in years. And even though Syrians are the largest group of people fleeing conflict right now, from January to April of this year the US reportedly only accepted 11 Syrian refugees.

World Refugee Day should be an observance of communities like Rochester, Minnesota, Portland, Maine, and Oakland, California, which have opened their hearts and cities to refugees and are benefiting from having inclusive and empowering populations driving sustainable economic growth. So, let’s salute those host communities, international and local agencies, and refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere who are facing the challenges of re-making their lives under very difficult conditions. And let’s continue to encourage the US and the international donor community to expand their humanitarian assistance to those in need.


What Was Said and What was Meant…Putin and Trump on Syria

While reading through the transcript of the joint press conference of Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki, there are many statements that have drawn the ire of analysts in Washington and elsewhere. But there are statements about the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey that bear closer scrutiny for what they say and imply, and how the novel definition of Trump “realism,” which stresses partnership with the Russian leader, can contribute to solving the dilemma of refugee repatriation.

For example, President Putin noted that “As far as Syria is concerned, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of this successful joint work.” He believes that “Russia and the United States apparently can act proactively and take leadership on this issue and organize the interaction to overcome humanitarian crisis and help Syrian refugees to go back to their homes. In order to accomplish this level of successful cooperation in Syria, we have all the required components.”

As a commentator in The Hill noted on July 17th, “Trump suggested that the U.S. and Russia could work together to bring humanitarian relief to Syrians displaced by their country’s civil war. But Putin is propping up Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who uses chemical weapons against his own people in an effort to stay in power. The Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year, is at the root of a refugee crisis about which both leaders professed concerns without mentioning Assad.”

So it is fair to ask what was said and is there any reason to draw positive inferences from their words? Looked at in a regional context, Trump suggested that protecting Israel was the key priority, to keep it safe by reducing instability caused by the refugee crisis. “As we discussed at length, the crisis in Syria is a complex one.” He added, “Cooperation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” He referenced Russia’s growing ties with Israel, “But I think that their [Russia] working with Israel is a great thing and creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much,” without as much as a whisper about the security and stability of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

How this continues to strengthen Russia’s hands as the reigning great power in the region was not referenced, so is the US preparing to turn the region’s future over to some vague partnership that Russia leads and the US follows?

In response to a question, Trump singled out humanitarian concerns without noting how the host countries are being affected. “One little thing I might add to that is the helping of people. Helping of people. Because you have such horrible, if you see and I’ve seen reports and I’ve seen pictures, I’ve seen just about everything. And if we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis, and that’s what the word was really a humanitarian basis. I think that both of us would be very interested in doing that and we are. We will do that.”

In response to the same question President Putin said, “We did mention this. We mentioned the humanitarian track of this issue. Yesterday, I discussed this with French president Mr. Macron and we reached an agreement that together with European countries, including France, will step up this effort. On our behalf, we’ll provide military cargo aircraft to deliver the humanitarian cargo and today I brought up this issue with President Trump. I think there are plenty of things to look into. The crucial thing here is that huge amount of refugees are in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan in the states that border adjacent to Syria. If we help them, the migratory pressure upon the European states will drop, will be decreased many fold.”

Putin went on “And I believe it’s crucial from any point of view, from humanitarian point of view, from the point of view of helping people, helping the refugees and in general I agree, I concur with President Trump our military cooperate quite successfully together. They do get along and I hope they will be able to do so in future.”

So what these responses mean in practical terms will unfold in the coming weeks. Humanitarian assistance promised by the EU and facilitated by Russia underscores its leadership on this crisis. Putin made reference to the Astana Process, which includes Iran and Turkey, as a key coordinator of policy initiatives regarding Syria, further reinforcing its primacy on the Syria issue. And the implication is that this is likely what Trump supports: withdrawing US presence in Syria, supporting an Israeli-friendly peace process with Palestine, and gradual political and military disengagement from the region.

Whether or not this will serve America’s interests in the long-run is a vexing dilemma. After 70 tough years of our diplomatic, military, economic, and humanitarian investments in the Middle East, Trump seems to believe that disengagement is the way forward. Russia agrees…



Deciphering Russia’s Levant Strategy – Can it Herd all the Cats?

Make no mistake about it; Russia is the most influential great power in the Middle East and the Gulf. The US has enabled this role over time through a continuing disengagement from those countries that once relied on us as the final arbiter and guarantor of their security and economic development. You can blame the Obama Administration all you want, but the Trump Administration, aside from putting even more weapons and intelligence in their hands, has not been able to assert US leadership as deftly and broadly as the Russians.

And now, a real test of Russian leadership is rising out of the faltering resistance to President Assad. Israel recently made a serious demarche to Moscow regarding the encroachment of Iranian and allied militias towards its northern border and the Golan. The trade-off: get them out of the area, let us target forces that violate our sense of security, and we won’t attack Russian targets in Syria. The US, with a Trump-Putin summit coming up, is also being enticed by Putin’s words that Syrian forces will not interfere with US advisors closing in on one of the last holdouts of Islamic militants, and then the US can leave.

Similarly, Putin has engaged Turkey on its role along its border with Syria and with Iran on its residual presence in Syria after Assad reclaims most of the country. As an article in Al-Monitor points out, “Putin’s leverage in Syria is unmatched, as he has managed complicated relations with all of the key parties — the Syrian government, Iran, Turkey, and Israel — while keeping up regular contacts with Arab Gulf leaders.” This is no accident. Putin has sensed US reluctance over the past decade to reaffirm is regional leadership and has gradually expanded his sphere of influence as evident by the many leaders who have made the pilgrimage to Moscow.

The US about face on the JCPOA with Iran, its inability to ease the GCC crisis over Qatar, and the lack of a strong diplomacy while the State Department floundered under Tillerson, have only eased Moscow’s rise to prominence. So the arrangement with Israel, if it holds, will be a strong indication of Russia’s influence with Iran, which is loath to leave Syria after investing so many resources and prestige in its efforts to save the Assad regime.

As Maxim Suchkov noted, “Despite all the complexities, the situation in southern Syria doesn’t look hopeless at this point. A far bigger challenge in this conundrum is Iran’s long-term presence in the rest of Syria. There’s an understanding in Moscow that Hezbollah may always find a reason to stay in Syria as long as its leadership feels it needs to ensure Lebanon’s security. There’s no way for Russia or any other external power to guarantee an Iran-free Syria, as there are no means of verifying Iran’s presence or its influence.”

And what about Iran’s objectives?

An article on Foreign takes the view that Iran has little to show for its efforts if it agrees at this point to withdraw its forces and limit its presence in Syria. “But Iranian officials and other experts say the country has invested too much blood and treasure — upwards of $30 billion to date — to fold to international demands, regardless of Israeli airstrikes, or even Moscow’s pressure. Having already made such a massive investment, Iran is determined to reap the potential long-term strategic rewards Syria has to offer — even if it comes at the expense of more lives and money in the short term.”

As with its goals in Iraq, Iran has a much broader goal than Syria per se, seeing regional hegemony as the prize, especially upping pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to acknowledge Iran’s dominance and simultaneously increasing its pressure on Israel. This latter point cannot be overlooked as a means of attracting Sunni support for Iran’s combative position vis-à-vis Israel. So a visible presence in Syria is essential in that “It gives Iran good leverage against Israel. The ground is very important, and Iran is very skillful at managing the ground — the one area where even Russians are weak. The one who has control of the ground doesn’t take seriously those who don’t,” according to an Iranian source quoted in the post on Foreign

According to Nawar Oliver, a researcher at a Turkish think tank, “Iranian forces currently operate out of 11 bases around the country, as well as nine military bases for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in southern Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor provinces as well as about 15 Hezbollah bases and observation points mostly along the Lebanese border and in Aleppo.”

In addition, the challenge of funding so many investments in Iraq and Syria, among others, has to play into the rising discontent in Iran regarding the failing economy, devaluation of its currency, high inflation, and other problems. Yet the leadership persists in its strategy. As the post concludes “But Iran’s involvement in Syria goes beyond a conventional military presence, and it has already begun to plant there the seeds of its unique financial and ideological institutions. Along with about a dozen other Iran-linked organizations, the Iran-backed Jihad al-Binaa, the Islamic charitable foundation that financed and organized the reconstruction of southern Beirut after the 2006 summer war, is already working on large projects to rebuild schools, roads, and other infrastructure in Aleppo and other towns, as well as providing aid for the families of slain Iran-backed Syrian militiamen.”

The balancing act is underscored in a recent Carnegie Middle East Center post, “In the end, Russia can’t allow Israel to initiate a direct military confrontation with Iran, as this would negatively affect Moscow’s calculations in Syria, while Israel can’t accept the unlimited growth of Iranian influence in Syria, as this threatens its own national security. Moscow has to take into account both Israel’s and Iran’s security concerns, and these are mutually exclusive.”

With no restraints on Iran’s leadership and the erosion of sanctions that might otherwise continue to hobble Iran’s finances, it is a dilemma as to how Russia will constrain Iran’s behavior. One avenue is Russian pressure paired with trade-offs for development assistance, which would even be trying for Moscow, given its own weakened economy. The other is for Iran to miscalculate and feed the beast of another war in the region, one that would be devastating for Iran and its allies, and one in which Lebanon would suffer enormously.



War again tops political agenda in the Levant as Israel asserts its security privileges

Now that the Lebanese and Iraqi elections are over and the countries’ political parties brace for the implications of whatever internal power-sharing arrangements emerge, the long shadow of Israel makes itself felt in Beirut and Baghdad.  Both countries have critical internal issues to address as well as keeping an eye on regional concerns that could undo whatever domestic progress is possible.

Lebanon cannot ignore its neighbors – an ascendant Assad regime in Syria that is close to achieving control over most of its urban areas; an Israel that continues to issue hostile statements regarding Lebanon’s internal political arrangements that allow Hezbollah key political and security roles; and as yet unfinished business on defining its borders with Israel. And then there is a very long domestic agenda that is made more challenging by the need to satisfy so many entitlements claimed by the competing parties.

Iraq’s struggles are even more complex. A coalition government that can be formed in a reasonable period of time will buy the leadership some space to address multiple internal security, economic, and social issues. And there is much more: what to do with Iran’s military, political, and economic presence that has only deepened with the success of its militias and proxies in combating ISIS and other militants; how to bring some sense of security on its border with Syria where US and coalition forces are working to eliminate terrorist threats in the area; how to manage relations with Erdogan’s Turkey and the restive Kurds; and an Israel government that is suspicious of Iraqi intentions under perceived Iranian influence and outright military muscle.

There is no escaping the reality that conditions are ripe for a significant rise in hostilities. Analysts warn that although none of the parties seem intent on ratcheting up tensions at this time, there is broad agreement that a miscalculation by any of the potential combatants can unleash a firestorm. With Israel toughening its redlines concerning Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon and Syria, Iran’s deepening presence in Syria, the likely movement of Syrian and allied forces into areas close to Israel’s border, and Russia’s reluctance to take on a more proactive role in defusing tensions, opportunities for a flame-up are multiplying…and this is not even including what the UAE and Saudi Arabia are intending.

As an article in Foreign Affairs noted, “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”

So the question is, how are the governments-to-be in Lebanon and Iraq to demonstrate wisdom in forming governments to avoid as much as possible the tipping points that undermine their countries’ stability? Can the leadership rise above sectarian and community identity politics and agree on a statement of principles and policies that diminish prospects for being dragged into regional conflicts? Will the new governments, based on broad consensus, be able to withstand external pressures on their internal politics?

It is interesting that Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition won the largest number of seats in the elections running a populist, even Trump-like campaign, wanting to drain the swamp in Baghdad, fight corruption, and return government to the people. Sunnis were drawn to his lists as they were to Haider al-Abadi’s lists, challenging age-old sectarian divides.

But the wild card of the standoff between Iran and Israel casts a pall on the government formation process in both countries. Unspoken in Lebanon but obviously on the agenda is what can be done to diminish Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and its antagonism towards Israel? With Israel intent on brandishing its “privilege” of US guarantees of military dominance in the region, and its anti-Iran campaign in sync with many US political leaders, its power  cannot be overlooked in formulating scenarios and discussing policy options. Similarly, Iraq, still facing ISIS and the remnants of the ISIS caliphate, wants to be able to manage its own affairs, a goal that may not be possible without alienating some military, political, and religious factions in Iran.

It will be a long, hot summer.

The future of Syrian refugees – a vexing issue affecting government formation in Lebanon

With the election process almost completed, awaiting several challenges lodged with the Electoral Commission, Lebanon’s power brokers are moving ahead with crafting a new government within the framework of the power-sharing agreement. Since the total number of members allocated by sect is already set, the negotiations focus on three primary concerns: balancing the election results within alliances that represent the dominant parties, allocating ministerial portfolios along sectarian lines, and ensuring that the members support a ministerial statement outlining government priorities and policies.

From outside Lebanon, the view is that there are three overarching issues to be addressed: corruption, Hezbollah’s military role, and the future of the Syrian refugees. While this does not ignore the close to a half-million Palestinian refugees, border demarcation with Israel, or dissociation, meaning staying out of regional frays, it highlights the reality that international donors are insisting on a link between further funding and accountability, and that regional stability depends on Hezbollah acting less as a proxy for Iran and more as a key Lebanese political force.

With regard to the Syrian refugees, it is acknowledged that there is no game plan in the works without a political settlement in Syria, which increasingly favors the Assad regime staying in power and extending its reach into all parts of the country. This could take years, and Prime Minister Hariri has recognized the conundrum for Lebanon in statements made earlier this year. “We want the refugees to live in a dignified way, to take their children to school and to have this generation of Syrians return to rebuild their country.” Stressing that Lebanon would abide by international law, Hariri said that refugees would only return “once favorable conditions are available.”

In his statements, President Aoun as recently as this week, made it clear that he is not prepared to wait for a political settlement. “We are surprised by the position of some parties which obstruct this return or do not encourage it. Lebanon faces many challenges with 1.8 million displaced people on its territory since 2015,” he said. He believes that nearly 50 per cent of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees if you count Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and others. He made some of his strongest rebuttals in response to the position taken by the EU and UN at the Brussels donors conference to gather for the refugees.

He rejected their position that the host countries must do more to assist in providing jobs, services, and future opportunities for the Syrians. Aoun pointed out that there are safe areas inside Syria where refugees can return safely, noting that Lebanon is doing as much as it can and should not be asked to do more.

Even the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Philippe Lazarini, warned that Lebanese society is witnessing “increasing fatigue” as a result of the refugee crisis. He highlighted that such concern may turn into anger and tension between different segments of society, amid great pressures on employment opportunities, if not addressed by the government. Aoun clarified his earlier comments, noting that he was not including people who faced political problems with the Assad regime.

Two recent studies help frame the challenges in devising “return with dignity” scenarios. There is a 2017 UN data report indicating that more than 75% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line and are unregistered so that they are unable to legally access the labor market and are often exploited in the informal economy, living on humanitarian aid, under the threat of arrest and hostility from host communities.

Refugees have also had a disproportionate negative impact on the host communities. The same study pointed out that most Syrian refugees have settled in Lebanon’s most marginalized regions, placing them in direct competition for access to work, public services, and resources with vulnerable Lebanese communities. There have even been claims that the influx of refugees is often cited as a reason for Lebanon’s stagnating economy.

This same survey showed that 70% of Syrian refugees would go home if they felt there was somewhere safe for them to return to.

This sentiment was echoed in a more recent study, found here, by the Carnegie Middle East Center that outlined four conditions that refugees surveyed indicated were essential to return. They are safety for their children, an end to conscription, physical homes to return to, and a safe and secure environment.

The study noted World Bank estimates that 30% of Syrian homes have been completely destroyed or damaged. Many undamaged properties are occupied by regime-affiliated forces, pro-Iran militias, or other Syrians displaced within the country.

Of the refugees interviewed, 80% had fled Syria due to incidents that stoked fear for their safety including arbitrary arrests by Syrian forces, the death of family or friends, and the deterioration in security conditions in their neighborhoods. A great majority could not see Syria stabilizing under the Assad regime. “Even if jobs and services were available, few believed the security and stability they want would exist if he remained in power.” Additional concerns were raised about the foreign forces in the country and the interference of outside powers determining Syria’s future.

Interestingly, an informal group of Syrian refugees in the north of Lebanon have drafted a peace proposal around establishing safe demilitarized zones in Syria that would allow for the return of refugees and displaced persons. They too want safety and security as the first conditions to return, with access to basic services and employment opportunities also as key. But they too recognized that “We know that such a solution today seems too far-fetched and unrealistic. With the recent sieges and bombings continuing in Syria, it is difficult for anyone to speak of return. For today the proposal is impossible, but one day the violence will lessen.”

For generations, Lebanon has been a safe haven for dispossessed people of the region despite its limited resources and governmental infrastructure. What the new government will say about its Syrian refugee policy will indicate how much further Lebanon is willing to go to support its good neighbor policy.

Challenging the Past in Rebuilding the North of Lebanon – Competing Visions

By many accounts, Tripoli was once on par with Beirut as a leader in commercial and economic activities. Dating back at least to the 14th century BCE, it has many historical and cultural sites, including the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, the largest Crusader fortress in Lebanon and the  second largest amount of Mamluk architectural heritage on earth (behind Cairo).

It is now seeking to recapture its economic prominence. Several sources make note that “A Tripoli development plan called ‘Tripoli Vision 2020’ has been formulated and supported by a number of advisory councils including influential key government officials and prominent businessmen in the city. The goal of the project is to provide a comprehensive framework consisting of promoting investment, training, re-skilling, talent placement, and output promotion to reinvigorate the city’s economy.” A number of these projects are included in the Capital Investment Plan that garnered broad international donor support at the recent CEDRE conference in Paris.

Financing aside, there are many obstacles to promoting economic growth and delivery of essential services in the north of Lebanon. This blog will focus on two competing visions: that of Salafist militants who are a source of continued instability in the region, contrasted to the work of the NGO Levant Local, which is pioneering work among youth to deliver social services to underserved and marginalized communities.

A recent article by the Carnegie Institute Middle East Center focused on Salafism in the region, defining it as a “Puritan Sunni religious movement advocating a return to the practices of the al-salaf al-salih, the companions and successors of the Prophet Muhammad.” The article points out that before the civil war and the rise of Hezbollah, Salafism was only marginally present in Lebanon among the Sunni communities, which make up some 90% of the population in Tripoli area.  According to the research presented, “it is apparent that, at its core, the rise of Salafi militancy in Lebanon stems from a sociopolitical revolt—one that originates in disaffected urban areas where the growth of Salafi groups has more to do with social dynamics than with any supposedly ideological appeal of extremism.”

In fact, individuals and groups studied appear to adopt Salafism to receive subsidies from outside funders, and use religious rhetoric to justify “Acts of violence that seem like Salafi militancy but rather align more with long-standing local traditions of social unrest; or providing a vocabulary and platform to contest local sociopolitical marginalization.”  If that is accurate, then the recent rise in Salafi militancy reflects local grievances, identity conflicts, and competing power networks. As with militants from Morocco to Iraq, seeing them only through a security perspective obscures options that may be effective in defusing tensions, reducing instability, and rebuilding communities.

Another critical factor throughout Lebanon, but quite visible in the north, is the economic marginalization of large parts of the Sunni population, where the gap between the privileged and the poor is quite significant. “In Tripoli, where Sunnis constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, 57% of the residents are poor—a far cry from the 28% national average. Yet what is of even more concern is the fast-growing urban segregation between the gated neighborhoods of the well-off, where basic services function, and the marginalized districts, where residents struggle with worsening insecurity, deteriorating infrastructure, poorly performing public schools, and high poverty rates.”

It is in communities that feel marginalized, deprived, and decoupled from the country’s power structure that the Salafists are making inroads, using Gulf money to open schools, run charities, fund orphanages, and help refugees in the absence of the state. And it is in this contested space that Levant Local is taking a stand, investing its resources, and working to make a difference.

The Carnegie study concludes with the statement that “A key priority for the Lebanese government should therefore be to design an ambitious nationwide plan aimed at reducing unemployment, mitigating the spread of the underground economy, developing infrastructure that provides public spaces and deals with overcrowding, and fixing a crumbling public school system. Only confidence in the state and in its capacity to assure the welfare of marginalized citizens will quash the thirst for a social revolt.”

Local efforts to support youth and marginalized

While the national Capital Investment Program and Vision 2020 move through the system, Levant Local is leveraging local resources and ambitions to promote safe spaces for young people by equipping them with knowledge and skills to combat extremism; and they are helping Syrian refugees acquire the tools to build the future Syria. What makes their approach vital? Think of the government as a top-down approach that has to move through the vagaries of the Lebanese political system, and Levant Local as a grassroots strategy. It is empowering young people, women, and local and community groups to develop solutions with limited resources without the numbing bureaucracy that constrains the operations of international NGOs and government agencies.

A few statistics comparing Northern Lebanon (NL) to the Bekaa Valley (BV) area highlight the scope of the challenge. There is 3 times the number of Lebanese in NL (791K to 275k), and it has 9 times the number of people living below the poverty line (608k vs 66k). Although both have a similar number of Syrian refugees (350k), many more Palestinian refugees live in NL (87k vs 6k). So how does NL deal with more than a million poor Lebanese and refugees when it has less political clout and access than other regions? It relies on the resilience of its people, the energy of its youth, and hopefully the wisdom of local leaders who understand that the future of Northern Lebanon rest on an inclusive, dynamic, and power-sharing formula that gives all Lebanese a chance to achieve their dreams.

For more details on how Levant Local works in North Lebanon, go here



So you Ask, Will there be a War in Lebanon?

Going through dozens of articles over the past month on this issue has convinced me that the prospects for war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in the next six months vary somewhere between 20 and 80%! Not very helpful, I know, which means that there is even a greater need to monitor communications and actions to avoid triggering a miscalculation leading to a conflict. As recently as this week, at least six articles have appeared in journals and media listing the tripwires.

Take Mara Karlin, of Johns Hopkins SAIS, writing in Foreign Affairs that “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”

She goes on to enumerate the calamitous conditions in the region, from the casualties, displaced people, and refugees in Lebanon, the uncertainty surrounding next steps for those temporary allies aligned against ISIS, and the shifting regional balance of power that has a marginal role for the US and outsized Russian and Iranian influence. Karlin writes that “The resulting tensions are likely to bring Israel to the brink of a regional war even bigger than the last one in 2006, when it invaded southern Lebanon.

With ISIS defeated and anti-regime foreign fighters dispersing throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, she believes that “the resulting shifts in focus will clarify the increasingly complex and dangerous relations between [Israel and Hezbollah]. Hezbollah has lost nearly 2,000 fighters in Syria, damaged its reputation through unfettered support for the regimes in Iran and Syria, and is rumored to face financial trouble. Despite all that, it remains popular with its core constituency, Lebanese Shiites.” This bodes poorly for Lebanon as Hezbollah, which Karlin predicts will win big in the upcoming parliamentary elections, will have even a strong chokehold on government policies.

She concludes however, that “Hezbollah’s and Israel’s long-term strategic goals are thus entirely at odds. Nevertheless, as of today, neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to trigger a war. A deliberate escalation by Israel or Hezbollah is unlikely to occur in the near term; an inadvertent one, however, is possible, as is an escalation courtesy of other actors currently tearing up the Levant, such as Iran, the Assad regime, or Russia.”

Commenting on Hezbollah’s overwhelming political power in Lebanon, a NY Books article argues that “There is real anxiety about Hezbollah’s domination in Lebanon, and about Iran’s not very subtle aim of expanding Shia power from Tehran to Beirut.”

This theme is echoed in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy article in which the presence of senior Iranian military officials along Lebanon’s southern border sends two messages, one, “so long as Lebanon is kept stable, the group will be left alone to continue its takeover there.”  The other that “Hezbollah and Iran still needed to reaffirm that no one in Lebanon can stop the group from intervening wherever it likes.”

The article takes issue with the notion that the Lebanese official policy of dissociation, by which it commits to not be involved in external conflicts, has any impact on Hezbollah’s activities. “The cover provided by the dissociation policy may buy the group enough time to position itself for victory in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. With the new electoral law that Hariri’s government passed this summer, Hezbollah will probably manage to bring its allies into parliament and consolidate its power democratically. This in turn would allow it to choose the next prime minister and president, make top military and security appointments, and even change the constitution as it sees fit.”

If Lebanon is to survive as an independent entity, the article concludes “The international community should therefore buttress its talk of stability with a focus on reforming state institutions in order to protect Lebanon’s values of freedom and diversity. Perhaps more important, Hariri’s dissociation policy needs to be accompanied by more aggressive measures against Hezbollah and its regional operations, though that seems unlikely given his recent moves.”

Similar pessimism is to be found in the International Crisis Group report on the Syrian conflict. It notes that “’Rules of the game’ that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. New rules can be established in Syria by mutual agreement or by a deadly cycle of attack and response in which everyone will lose. A broader war could be one miscalculation away.”

There is an emerging consensus that the US has relinquished any leadership role in reducing tensions in the area despite the recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to the area and the presence of US forces in Syria. Although the seeds for this lack of engagement were the official policy of the Obama Administration, it continues. An article in Al Monitor put it this way, “But despite US President Donald Trump’s sharp criticism of everything his predecessor did to diminish American deterrence in the region, the impression for now is that Washington is stronger in words than in deeds. Yet soon it will have to decide which direction it is going to take.”

CNN focused on Russian perceptions that a war would be disastrous to its objectives in the region as being seen as the power broker. “Russia has no desire to undermine three years of investment in saving the Assad regime, only to see Israel become involved militarily in Syria, which could weaken the Syrian regime and strengthen the United States’ hand against Iran. Iran isn’t looking for war with Israel either, as it could jeopardize its own gains in Syria.”

Sadly the consensus around the marginal role of the US is echoed in the Israeli press, which noted the weak American hand in dealing with the tit-for-tat fighting two weeks ago when the Israelis shot down an alleged Iranian drone in its airspace, bombed a control center in Syria, lost a plane to a Syrian missile, then severely damaged Syrian air defense positions, almost leading to the feared escalation.

A Haaretz article said that It is clear that a call from President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu kept tempers in check. “The quiet after the Netanyahu-Putin call shows once again who’s the real boss in the Middle East. While the United States remains the region’s present absentee – searches are continuing for a coherent American foreign policy – Russia is dictating the way things are going.”

For now, the border remains much the same as before although there is concern that the Syrian regime may overstep its restraints and attack the de-escalation zone close to the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon-Israel border. Since not even the Russians are sure what the Assad government will do, as shown by its violations of the so-called 30 days cease-fire announced by Russia, there are far too many agendas and personalities in play to expect that a coherent set of rules of engagement will evolve any time soon.

Deep Concern over Potential Escalation between Israel, Syria, and Iran

Recent cross-border military actions between Israel and Syria, the first since 1982, have raised concerns in Lebanon and the United States over the potential for increased hostilities in the region. The current tensions came on the heels of a February 6 inspection visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to the Israel-Syria-Lebanon border area.

As reported in Al Monitor, “According to official reports from the Syrian army, that same night, Israeli aircraft attacked a target on the outskirts of Damascus. That same area, where a Syrian research facility involved in the “Precision Project” for missiles is located, had already been bombed in the past. Indeed, this site is considered by Israel to be a direct strategic threat.” Since the missiles were fired from Lebanon, some analysts opined that Israel was sending a message to Hezbollah as well as Syria.

While the Cabinet was in the north, it received briefings from senior military officials that focused primarily on Hezbollah’s increased capabilities in Lebanon and Syria. As the article phrased it, “In the past few weeks alone, the winds of war blowing across the region have turned into a veritable hurricane.”

It has not taken long for the situation to deteriorate. Despite a Lebanese government statement challenged Israel’s construction of a wall along the Blue Line, which demarcates the border with Lebanon, Israel retorted that it has every intention of moving ahead aggressively. Israel has made clear that if there is a third Lebanon war, “The damage to Lebanon will be enormous, with most of its national infrastructures in ruins and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties. Hezbollah will also suffer a resounding blow, though it is hard to imagine that it will be completely defeated and obliterated,” according to Al Monitor.

Within days of the Lebanese statement, Israel carried out major air strikes in Syria, including facilities that house Iranian and Russian military forces, brought about by the interception of an alleged Iranian drone over Israeli airspace. While Israel’s regular overflights over Lebanon’s territory are tolerated since Lebanon has no air defense system, the same is not true of Syria. When Israel destroyed the drone and attacked the command and control center in Syria, it engaged Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military and Israel lost an F-16 in the strike.

This loss increased tensions, leading to alarm bells going off in the region in advance of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit this week. “The events, including Israel’s direct engagement with Iranian forces, threatened to intensify the crisis in Syria and showed the extent to which the country [Syria] has become a battlefield between Israel and Iran, bitter foes in the region,” noted the New York Times.

From the Israeli side, the warning is clear, “We are ready to exact a very heavy price from whoever acts against us,” said Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, “but we are not seeking an escalation.” Spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus added, “Syria and Iran are playing with fire.”

Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswomen said in a statement that “The United States is deeply concerned about today’s escalation of violence over Israel’s border, and “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk.”

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation, as “civilians in the war-torn country [Syria] suffer through one of the most violent periods in nearly seven years of conflict. In a statement he said that “all concerned in Syria and the region have a responsibility and must abide by international law and relevant Security Council resolutions.”

According to several sources quoted in The Washington Post, the recent strikes “could have serious consequences for the war in Syria – and for the region as a whole.” Israeli leaders and commentators mention three overlapping issues: the presence of Iranian forces including its surrogate Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, the potential arming of Hezbollah and others with precision-guided missiles, and the continuing upgrading of Hezbollah forces across the border in Lebanon.

“If the conflict escalates, it could end up adding a dangerous angle to the ongoing Syrian conflict — and one that could wind up involving other powers in the region and beyond.

An open conflict between Israel and Iranian-backed forces would add to the entanglements and chaos in Syria. It would also risk pulling neighboring Lebanon or other Arab states into a new war, too,” according to the Post article.

All of the recent regional escalation cloaked continuing domestic devastation as Syrian attacks continue on civilian facilities. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, underlined the need for urgent international action to protect civilians caught up in “wave after wave” of deadly airstrikes. “The no-holds-barred nature of this assault is evidenced by reports that at least nine medical facilities, six of them in Idlib and three in eastern Ghouta, were hit by airstrikes. “Even by Syria’s atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments – and a cruel irony given that both have been declared ‘de-escalation areas.”


And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Up, Then Down Again

 The New Year has some new looks and some old threats along Lebanon’s borders. Part of the good news is that Lebanon’s five official border crossings with Syria are all open, some of them closed for five years. Maybe more importantly for the Lebanese, the government has finally removed security barriers in the downtown section around Parliament Square, which were not only an eyesore, but a death knell for the businesses that once thrived in the area.

When I visited Lebanon in 2006 with my children, there was no better time than being part of the happy crowds strolling along the streets watching the World Cup and savoring the nightlife of Beirut. The area was closed off after a show of strength by Hezbollah in response to the government trying to reign in its illegal ITC network. Then the area was the site of large-scale demonstrations during the trash crisis.

This made it a flashpoint for anti-government actions with the result that the area was barricaded except for a bit of foot traffic. One of the most attractive centers that Solidere built in the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown became a virtual ghost area, soon to lose its luster to Beirut Souks, a misnamed tribute to the original shopping district of the city.

According to a recent article, “Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri ordered the roads leading to the Parliament Square open days after the square witnessed its largest New Year’s Eve celebration, with thousands of revelers, as part of a government initiative to revive the area. Berri on Wednesday urged business owners, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area to reopen after many of them had closed down, having given up on the area attracting visitors again.”

Well, that was one source of optimism. Another is that the last official border crossing at Qaa between Lebanon and Syria that had been closed is now opened. With a large sign “Welcome to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria” greeting those who use the crossing, there is a not so subtle reminder on the sign that “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people that live in two brotherly lands.”

The Syrian government, under Assad father and son, insisted that there was no need for an ambassador to Lebanon as the countries were one peoples divided by the Great Powers. While this sentiment once had some popularity in Lebanon, that faded under the Syrian presence after the civil war and has diminished even more with the hosting of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

While the opening is good news for local residents on both sides of the border with property, family, and friends now accessible, it is not seen as an indication that Syrian refugees may soon begin to return home. At this point, the main beneficiaries are Syrians who can come to Lebanon and finds goods and products unavailable in war-ravaged Syria.

The newly opened “Chtaura-Homs road,” according to one article, “Used to be a busy artery, with hundreds, if not thousands, of cars crossing the border every day. But clashes between different rebel groups operating from Syria and the Lebanese army forced its closure.” This past year, with the territory back under government control, “All five official border crossings between Lebanon and Syria are now open and controlled by the Syrian regime.”

Chtaura is a key city in the Bekaa valley, a major agricultural area in Lebanon long under the control of Hezbollah. Locals are hoping that in time the situation will normalize and customary business will resume. This is critical for the Bekaa, which is “one of Lebanon’s poorest regions and houses a disproportionate number of Syrian refugees compared to the rest of the country because of its proximity to the border. There are a little under 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom roughly 350,000 live in the Bekaa Valley. However, Lebanese officials believe that the number of Syrians that fled to Lebanon because of the war is closer to 1.5 or 2 million people,” according to an article in Al-Monitor.

The article noted that “Those who are tempted to go home are still wary of the economic situation back in Syria. Askar, a young agricultural worker, fled Homs to Qaa several years ago with 100 extended family members. “[God willing] we will go home soon. But there are still problems. We will not be able to live like before. For now, the situation is still better in Lebanon, as I can find work here.”

According to a Lebanese security official interviewed by Arab News, “the whole issue could be limited to local residents only, because there are Lebanese citizens who have properties in Syria, and there are Syrian citizens who have relatives in Lebanon, otherwise we do not expect the return of Syrian refugees to inland Syria.” He estimates that there are about 30,000 Syrian refugees in the border area.

Noting that the open crossing with enable better control of the movement of refugees, “the actual return of refugees is still awaiting a political solution for the war in Syria, which involves tackling the issue of refugees.” However, the source said that “opening the border crossing is part of field preparations for any future step in this direction.”

An indication of how unresolved the situation is was a statement from Prime Minister Hariri’s office that “those who think the war in Syria is over are mistaken.” Without a formal rapprochement between the two governments, which will be difficult given the enmity between the Prime Minister and President Assad, the opening is symbolic and functional, no more.

From the Lebanese side, the regional representative of Lebanese General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, inaugurated the new General Security center without coming to the Syrian side. He said in a speech that the inauguration of the center “is of great importance at these exceptional sensitive times. We are here to set the borders of our homeland with efforts and sacrifice.” He also said that “the cooperation with the Syrian side is within the limits imposed by the procedures and laws,” stressing that “the policy of dissociation has nothing to do with opening the border crossing.”

Of course, Israel is looking closely at any movements by the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah to change the status of the current borders, an issue I will explore in my next blog.