Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Middle East: Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon

Source: International Crisis Group

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.

In its latest report, Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon, the International Crisis Group examines the impact of Syria’s war on its most fragile neighbour.  It focuses on the presence of over a million Syrians, half of them refugees – a figure that is a quarter as great as the state’s citizen population of four million. The influx of refugees aggravates state dysfunction, taxes Lebanon’s already limited resources and, by reigniting fears of a shift in the sensitive confessional make-up, risks renewing violent conflict in a state still recovering from its devastating civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
  • Porous boundaries, weapons smuggling, deepening involvement by Sunni Islamists opposed to the Syrian regime on one side and, especially, the pro-regime Hizbollah on the other, and cross-border skirmishes are drawing Lebanon ever more deeply into its neighbour's conflict which, in turn, increasingly morphs into a regional and international confrontation between opposing axes.
  • Lebanon is reaching a breaking point: the refugee influx rises daily and likely will soar if and when the battle for Damascus is fully joined; this Syrian presence is fueling pre-existing political, social and communal tensions and exposing Lebanon’s dysfunctions and declining economy; the government, divided and polarised, has been slow to meet the resulting challenges.
  • Once Lebanon's factions negotiate a replacement for the government that fell in March, the new cabinet needs to tackle the refugee question head-on. Together with the political parties, it should plan the establishment of refugee camps, while exploring with security and military authorities how to ensure their safety without excessively intrusive measures.
  • The international donor community should give Lebanon, UN agencies and their partners the funds they need to address the refugee crisis.
 “Lebanon’s fate historically has been deeply intertwined with Syria’s”, says Sahar Atrache, Middle East and North Africa Analyst.  “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”. 
“It is too late for Lebanon to wind back the clock and adopt a genuine policy of non-interference.  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”, says Program Director Robert Malley.  “Such a population influx would be staggering anywhere, but with Lebanon’s institutional frailty, scant resources and highly sensitive sectarian balance, it is a nightmare”.