Normalising relations with Assad will not ease Lebanon’s refugee problem

Hariri says that any effort towards refugee transfers should be coordinated by the UN.
Sunday 29/04/2018
At the core of debates. A Syrian refugee carries his matresses at an unofficial refugee camp in the area of Arida, north of Beirut. (AFP)
At the core of debates. A Syrian refugee carries his matresses at an unofficial refugee camp in the area of Arida, north of Beirut. (AFP)

In Lebanon, public opinion of the war in Syria is divided. The Lebanese state has maintained a somewhat neutral official position towards the Syria problem, branding its approach as a “disassociation” policy, which is based on fear of spillover of the conflict that could compromise Lebanon’s fragile security.

However, as the Lebanese people head to the polling stations on May 6 to elect legislators for the first time in almost a decade, political campaigns — particularly those of politicians linked to Hezbollah and its allies — are proposing normalising relations with the Syrian regime to facilitate the return of more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

There is no proof that normalising relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad would ease the refugee burden in Lebanon. Re-establishing official connection with Damascus would likely increase sectarian tensions in the country and reintroduce Syrian meddling into Lebanese internal affairs.

Since elected in October 2016, Lebanese President Michel Aoun has called on his country’s government to work with the Syrian regime to expedite the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The same call has been heard from Aoun’s political ally, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who feels emboldened to push the issue of refugee return following recent territorial advances by the Syrian regime.

Building on a widely shared sentiment against refugee populations and political consensus among many Lebanese parties to begin a dialogue with Damascus, politicians are raising fears among their constituencies to reach their narrow political objective of strengthening the pro-Assad Lebanese clique through normalising relations with Syria.

This pro-Assad rhetoric has increased since December 2016 when a new Lebanese cabinet was formed. The cabinet represents a government that is divided along confessional and political lines. It includes ministers from various rivals, each with their own political views on domestic and foreign policy. However, it is distinctively dominated by Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 Alliance.

The Free Patriotic Movement, a political party led by Aoun and members of the March 8 coalition, noted on its website that “forced repatriation” of refugees is among the country’s priorities in 2018. The Lebanese Forces, a Christian rival political party that officially states its opposition to the Syrian regime, has also been vocal about the need for refugee return; however, it wants that to happen without coordination with Damascus.

Opposition to refugee repatriation has come from Lebanon’s Sunni leader, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who said Lebanon would not force refugees to return.

Hariri affirmed that any effort towards refugee transfers should be coordinated by the United Nations. Yet, the powers of the prime minister’s office and Hariri’s pro-Western camp appear to be softening. More so, Hariri and the anti-Assad March 14 Alliance would lose power and influence if the elections, which are the first under a new proportional representation law, provide a parliamentary majority to Hezbollah and its allies.

However, Hezbollah has long advocated for a proportional system to replace the plurality voting system, which would enable the Shia militia and political party to enter competitions in new districts (in Beirut, for example) and expand their political dominance. Some are predicting that the pro-Western March 14 Alliance will lose seats with the new law and Hezbollah and other supporters of the Syrian regime may expect to win a bigger bloc.

Dialogue with the Assad regime to forge a solution to the Syrian refugee problem in Lebanon may likely prove futile. Far more refugees have fled Syria because of the brutality exercised by the regime than by other armed counterparts. Fears of bombardment, kidnapping, detention and persecution are among the many reasons Syrian refugees would not return to Assad’s Syria any time soon.

Regardless, efforts in Lebanon have begun to force out Syrian refugees. Human Rights Watch reported that municipalities and the army in Lebanon are gradually evicting Syrian refugees with more than 42,000 at risk of such attempts.

Politicising the struggle of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is problematic; politicians continue to suggest that some parts of Syria have become safe because of regime control. This is an argument that UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has repeatedly opposed.

What’s more, the pro-Assad political bloc in Lebanon wants to normalise relations with Damascus for its benefit within Lebanese politics. In doing so, Lebanon would give Assad a window out of his regional isolation and further slide Lebanon into the pro-Iran camp. Hezbollah and others would open their areas in Lebanon to economically benefit from what they perceive to be an upcoming “reconstitution” opportunity in neighbouring Syria.

As it has ever been, Damascus and the prospects of its role in Lebanese politics are at the core of debates during elections, given the lengthy history of Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Additionally, normalisation would likely have internal ramifications. Different constituencies in Lebanon would not only be disappointed by the hare-brained promise of repatriation of refugees but also by having their country open for renewed Syrian influence over and meddling in internal affairs.

This, along with the grievances among the Lebanese Sunni community, would probably inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon.