Pressure grows for the return of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees

Sunday 05/11/2017
A Syrian refugee child holds a bread at a camp near the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon\'s Bekaa Valley, last August. (Reuters)

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.”