Syria is going through its third autumn of civil war, where the indiscriminate brutality from both sides is matched only the complexity of the geopolitical stakes beyond the Syrian context. The whole region seems to be held hostage, with the people of Syria and its neighbours on the frontline.
Bound by its geographical proximity to its conflicted neighbour, and the inextricable social, societal and economic ties, Lebanon finds itself, again, a prisoner.
Since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011, almost a million refugees have flowed through the open border between Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon’s population, estimated at around 4 million prior to the crisis, has swollen to such an extent that it is estimated that Syrian nationals now account for a almost a fifth of the current inhabitants.
Lebanon has long served as a harbour for those displaced by territorial disputes or conflicts in the region, and has sought to treat those seeking refuge with humanity and a sense of brotherhood. Although it has been shaken by chaotic events in its recent history, deep-rooted ties run between these countries – not least a widespread shared family heritage between many Syrian and Lebanese families.
Yet in recent weeks a crisis has emerged to which the international community cannot stay numb.
Lebanon occupies a delicate equilibrium between disparate religious sects and communities, a position achieved in no small part due to two years of mediation by the caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati. The influx of many hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians places this balance in jeopardy, and threatens to collapse a number of uneasy alliances.
Deciding to interact with Hezbollah was no easy decision for Mikati’s government, and demonstrates the political influence and clout this faction possesses within the Lebanese political arena. It is this leverage which Iran wishes to retain within the Syrian conflict. [The Iranian position was reiterated as Iran has opened to the USA, UK, France and the international community in general since the new Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, was elected in June 2013.
In economic terms, the World Bank estimated in a recent report that the Syrian crisis has resulted in direct losses to Lebanon of over €5.5 billion since 2012. The government’s income is thought to have decreased by nearly €880 million in 2013, its third consecutive year of budgetary contraction. Conversely, public spending has increased by 28% to provide emergency medical services and public service. This unsustainable deficit has led, amongst other things, to an exceptionally high tax burden on Lebanon’s working population.
The influx of many hundreds of thousands of displaced largely Sunni Syrians places this balance in jeopardy, and threatens to dangerously destabilise the entire country
First and foremost however, the consequences are disastrous in terms of the fragile social and religious cohesion which emerged from the Taef agreements of October 1989. These ended a 15 year long civil war that decimated Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, a conflict that has many painful parallels with the current tragic events in Syria.
There is a significant risk that the precarious balance between Shi’as and Sunnis (59.7%% of the population) and Maronite Christians (39%) will collapse if the national unity that the coalition government has been pursuing since previous Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in 2011, fails. The influx of many hundreds of thousands of displaced largely Sunni Syrians places this balance in jeopardy, and threatens to dangerously destabilise the entire country.
Crime has doubled – even possibly tripled in certain areas of Lebanon; and more and more Lebanese nationals are forced to leave their country due to the increasing cost of living.
Education is the best example of the challenges Lebanon is currently facing. The 330,000 Lebanese children in education are dwarfed by the 500,000 Syrian children, who have sought refuge in Lebanon with their parents, in need of school places. Access to education is a fundamental entitlement for these children, and their greatest hope of overcoming the traumatic and inhumane war they are victims of. But Lebanon’s educational infrastructure is fast approaching a point where it can no longer support these children.
Unlike some of its neighbours, Mikati’s government has deliberately chosen to ascribe the Syrians as ‘displaced people’ and not as ‘refugees’. Beyond this symbolic measure, the priority for the Lebanese Prime Minister is now to reach out to its European partners, especially Germany, the UK and France, and emphasise that the issue is now beyond Syria’s immediate neighbours.
France has decided to welcome 500 refugees and Germany 5000. The difference is sizeable, and it demonstrates that Berlin realises the vast challenges encountered by the Lebanese government better than Paris. The Lebanese Prime Minister recently reiterated to the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, that the security and stability of his country will be key to the peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis.
The Geneva II Conference, originally due at the end of this month, but now not likely to take place before the end of year, will be, if it goes ahead, a crucial opportunity to address the Syrian refugee crisis, and the profound socio-economic this humanitarian crisis has had on Syria’s neighbours. There are now more than 550,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and 600,000 in Turkey, 125,000 in Egypt, and 202,000 in Iraq, whilst the latest estimations suggest an influx of at least 800,000 registered refugees in Lebanon and an additional 300,000 non-registered.
The main players of the Geneva II Conference preparing Syria’s peaceful future: Iran, the USA and Russia should also include this issue on their agendas, as it is a prerequisite in the process of national and regional reconciliation that has been so damaged in the last two and a half years of turmoil.
As we are left speculating on the strategic divergences, consequences and disillusions arising from the Arab Spring, the emergence of a ‘new Lebanon’ could be used as an example for its neighbours. This transition relies on the closure of past wounds and would be a model of quiet transition in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Moreover, time is giving credence to Najib Mikati’s adherence to the concept of “dissociation”, so that the burden of the Syrian crisis does not weaken the already fragile Lebanese State. Nonetheless one cannot ignore the fact that these countries’ future depend on each other, and that Lebanon shares much more with Syria than a communal border.