Pressure grows for the return of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees
London- While debates over the repatriation of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees have intensified, economic and political indicators suggest that much of the country’s posturing may amount to little more than political theatre.
Pressure from Lebanese President Michel Aoun, his Free Patriotic Movement party and their allies in Hezbollah has ratcheted up since the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, each pointing to Syria’s freshly minted de-escalation zones as safe havens for Lebanon’s predominantly Sunni refugee population.
However, chief among those publicly opposing the refugees’ return was outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who had called for coordination with the international community before the refugees leave. Hariri submitted his resignation on November 4 over what he described as Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs and concerns over his safety.
Amid headlines on Lebanese corruption, refuse collection and the failing of the country’s infrastructure stand the Syrian refugees as a convenient target for Lebanon’s internal ire. “There is a self-victimising trope in the media,” Omar al-Ghazzi, assistant professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics, said in a telephone interview. “This convenient narrative shifts attention away from national introspection and points the finger elsewhere.”
In this light, increased cooperation with Damascus appears inevitable. Indicators suggest that such cooperation is already under way. The director of Lebanese General Security, Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, has been to Damascus to discuss the refugees’ return and a ministerial committee convened in Beirut to discuss the matter.
As impetus for the refugees’ return grows, Hariri has yet to take concrete action to halt the flow. Conversely, with his personal support wavering, a normalisation of relations with Syria stands to bolster the economic conditions on which his mandate rests. Speaking in the economically deprived district of Akkar in June, Hariri referred to the key role the Qoleiaat military airport there might play in Syria’s potential reconstruction, once it opens for commercial flights.
Prior to his resignation, Hariri was said to have been eyeing the fledgling Tripoli Special Economic Zone, led by a key ally, former Lebanese Finance Minister Raya al-Hassan. Hassan openly talked about plans for a highway to Syria and even a “railway network that will link the [Tripoli] port to the Syrian border.” She is a member of BankMed’s board of directors; Hariri owns 42.24% of the bank’s shares. Hariri had been hoping to win back support in time for next May’s parliamentary elections.
Internationally, despite much heated rhetoric to the contrary, there appears to be growing traction for the refugees’ return. In May, UN officials appeared to be warming to the Russian spearheaded de-escalation zones, to which Lebanon’s refugee population would find themselves dispatched, with UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura characterising them as a “step in the right direction.”
However, while the international community may be warming to the idea of Lebanon’s refugees returning to the zones, concerns remain. Despite their being touted as a sanctuary, air strikes on the Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham remain permissible within the areas. The Syrian Army continues to besiege Eastern Ghouta, where malnutrition is said to be rife.
Speaking by phone, Bassam Khawaja, a Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “We recently saw Syrians told Idlib is safe to return to and now we’re documenting air strikes on displacement camps there… There is no doubt that Syrians in Lebanon want to go back once it’s safe for them to do so but we’re not yet at a point where that is the case.”