Can safe zones work for Lebanon’s refugees?

Lebanese officials are always calling the crisis du jour ”existential,” yet Lebanon manages to endure. But the Syrian refugee crisis just might be existential. Lebanon’s interior minister said recently that Syrian nationals now constitute 29 percent-30 percent of Lebanon’s population. Imagine the refugee influx if Damascus and Horns implode! Since 17 years is the global average of displacement, Lebanon is rightly concerned about the refugees and the continuing burden on infrastructure, potential militarization and threat to the sectarian balance.

There seem to be three solutions to alleviate the Syrian refugee problem: political resolution of the Syrian crisis, third-country resettlement and safe zones in Syria.

The ideal, of course, is a political resolution that stops the outflow of people from Syria and allows the refugees to return safely. But such a resolution is currently remote. And the sheer numbers of Syrian refugees — 4 million — make third country resettlement little more than a palliative. About half of Syria‘s population of 22 million have been displaced or made refugees. As a senior U.S. official candidly told us, the world cannot resettle itself out of the refugee crisis.

This leaves us with a third option: safe zones.


The U.S. has stated publicly that it is not considering the no-fly zone option at this time. Rather, it hopes to establish “de facto” safe zones in northern Syria by clearing this region of ISIS; and to establish a de facto air exclusion zone, assuming the presence of coalition aircraft will deter the Syrian military from overflying this area. However — and this is an important point — the projected safe zone in northern Syria is intended for internally displaced persons and refugees living across the border in Turkey, and not for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

Though there have been preliminary discussions of a no-fly zone in southern Syria along the Jordanian border, there is no talk about a safe zone on the Lebanese border, because there would be no ground force to protect it. The Lebanese-Syrian border is mostly under Syrian government control and the eastern border is a combat zone, with the Syrian army, Hezbollah and the National Defense Force militia vying against ISIS and the Nusra Front. The overwhelmingly Sunni Syrian refugees in Lebanon are presumably anti-Assad — otherwise they would have resettled in secure areas of Syria — and would be reluctant to relocate to refugee camps in areas controlled by the Syrian government and Hezbollah.

Further, the UNHCR would likely oppose having refugees move to a combat zone. A high-ranking Lebanese army officer stated that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not allow camps on the Lebanese border — even in a no man‘s land — because he would be concerned that armed individuals in the camps would attack Syrian forces and installations.

And even if no-fly zones and safe zones — de facto or declared — were established on the Turkish and Jordanian borders, Lebanon has no common border with either country. If these safe zones were provided the infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon, how would the refugees get to Turkey or Jordan? Would they go by airlift or ship? Lebanon officially abides by non-refoulement — no forced return of refugees. This would come into play if refugees refused to relocate on their own, turning into a public relations nightmare!

Sadly, safe zones are not a panacea for Lebanon. And the longer the Syrian refugee crisis continues, the more donor fatigue will grow. Just ask the UNRWA how tough it is to raise money for Palestinian refugees. The U.S and European powers are left with the slim prospect that they can resolve the Syrian dilemma and slow or reverse the refugee flow. There is even a slimmer prospect that refugees from Lebanon can be relocated of safe zones in Turkey or Jordan or third countries. The options are few and becoming even fewer. In the meantime, Lebanon and the international donor community must give priority attention to the host communities bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis by finding ways to improve the economic, social and infrastructure needs of those communities.

Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and serves as CEO and president of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for the Daily Star.


The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Saving the Lost Generation and the Communities that Serve Them

The Syrian refugee crisis is nearing a tipping point, beyond which no near-term solutions are possible. On this website, many of us have discussed policy options to stem the Syrian crisis and get to the negotiating table. In the meantime, we have a crisis that can’t wait for diplomacy or military action: the lost generation of uneducated young refugees, and the host communities struggling to bear their weight.

More than four million Syrians have fled the country, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Though in absolute numbers Turkey hosts the largest community, about 30% of Lebanon’s population and 20% of Jordan’s population are now Syrian nationals. To the 4 million refugees, add the 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced and you end up with about half of Syria’s population as either displaced or refugees. One-third – and as much as half – of the housing stock and a large percentage of economic infrastructure have been destroyed or damaged in Syria, and mistrust of the current Syrian security forces abounds. Without homes and jobs and fearful of the government, refugees will not return any time soon and host countries will have to cope with refugees for years to come.

Given the circumstances, the international community must face two most important realities. Nearly 3 million Syrian children – refugees and Internally Displaced Persons – are out of school and represent a lost generation who are hopeless, desperate and potential targets for terrorist recruitment. And, unless Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey receive greater assistance for communities servicing the refugees, these front-line countries risk destabilization, making matters worse for Europe and beyond.

In Lebanon for instance, out of 510,000 school-age Syrian refugees, only 21% are in Lebanese public schools. An even more alarming statistic: secondary school enrollment in Lebanon for Syrian refugees is an abysmal 2%! One doesn’t need to explain the security and economic implications for Syria’s future and the host countries of having an accruing number of refugee youth aged 15-18 out of school.

Given the average $600 cost of educating additional students in Lebanese public schools and the more than 1 million Syrian children out of school in the three countries, the international community cannot cope with this problem in a cost-effective manner without new, creative measures.

One such creative measure is e-learning. The incremental cost of educating a refugee child through e-learning is a sixth of the traditional cost: $45, plus $50 per student for shared laptops, tablets, Xboxes, etc. This is a great, cost-effective alternative and complement to traditional schooling. E-learning can be conducted in community centers already established for the refugees, and rotational instructors can give more structure to the learning experience.

There is good access to the internet among the refugees, and e-learning has been successfully employed in remote areas of Ethiopia and India that are far less propitious for internet connectivity and computer literacy than Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey. And children are amazing in how rapidly they adapt to new technologies. Most importantly, on-line learning can be deployed quickly, with the Lebanese and Syrian curricula already digitized.

The second most important consideration is helping host communities better deal with the refugees through win-win solutions. In Lebanon, refugees live in more than 1600 communities, straining housing, electricity, education, health care, sanitation, access roads and security. Though Jordanians and Lebanese have shown tremendous generosity, they have limited resources, and refugee fatigue and frustration have already set in. New investment funds can be established by the international community and private sector for “social entrepreneurs” to devise innovative ways of providing services to the refugees and marginalized communities hosting most of the refugees. International aid agencies frequently provide cash transfers to the refugees and entrepreneurs should look upon refugees as consumers. Such funds have proven successful in other regions of the world and can work in this case as well.

Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq are in an emergency situation, which requires emergency solutions. As the refugee crisis in Europe showed, the spillover from Syria will not be contained to Syria’s neighbors. Let’s at least give the refugee children the educational basis for a productive future and a way to resist the allure of extremist ideologies. And let’s give the host communities the chance to reap some benefit from their generosity.

Defeating ISIL Requires US Leadership Now!

As a member of the Council of American Ambassadors, I have written before in CAA publications on Syria and radicalism in the Levant—once in September of 2013,[1] and again in September of 2014.[2] Nearly a year later, I am disheartened to see that US leadership continues to be timid in its struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Syria, in spite of our warnings and prediction that if the United States didn’t define and lead the effort in this fight, radical elements would take over against our interests. This didn’t have to be the case and doesn’t have to be in the future. However, the problem cannot simply be wished away and we can’t wait two long years for a new administration to take action.

When the popular uprising in Syria began in 2011, the United States had to confront just one threat: President Assad. Today, we have at least three others: ISIL threatening not only Syria, but Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey with terrorist activities; a refugee problem that could overwhelm our friends in those countries and Europe; and finally, the Iranian arc of resistance which, stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and to Lebanon, is gaining ground as it firms up support in its fight against ISIL and its support for Syria.

Further complicating the situation, Russia seems to be taking new, meddlesome moves to support Assad. Lack of decisive and strong American determination opens a door to further Russian and Iranian cooperation that can only be detrimental to our interests and those of our allies in the Arab world.

In 2013, I suggested that if a rebel force could be armed under a central command control, with the United States leading a coalition including Qatari, Saudi, and other Arab and regional allies in this fight, we would be able to either defeat Assad or force him to the bargaining table, and as importantly, cut off the Iranian arc of resistance at its core in Syria. Today, the effort—although terribly more difficult—still requires American leader­ship, otherwise the situation will only get worse.

We are now faced with a long-term problem that will require long-term solutions, and a two-step process, which I believe should take into consideration the following:

  • Any strategy should not have to be conducted with front line American boots on the ground. American advisers, military equipment, and air support are necessary, but this effort must include 25,000 to 50,000 carefully vetted Syrian rebel forces, under a trusted central command control, along with Iraqi, Kurdish, and other Arab fighters committed to win over the long haul in Syria and the region.
  • ISIL must first be defeated by rebel forces with US and allied support, taking back ground once controlled by them, with a mission of good governance and the formation of a new functioning government in the newly held territory, as an alter­na­tive to the disastrous past faced by Syrian citizens. This will not only allow for military staging areas but help relieve the refugee problem and allow citizens to go back to protected zones in their home countries. Immediate good deeds for citizens in this newly held ground will be a necessary first step for the new government organization established there.
  • A similar military effort in Iraq, combined with US support and leadership, and in coordination with the Iraqi government and other Arab and regional allies, will defeat ISIL from the west and east.
  • Assad cannot be given a pass, but dealing with Assad and forcing him out through a negotiated process will have to wait until we first deal with ISIL, given the deterioration of legitimate Syrian opposition over the past four years. It should be understood that if Assad remains the ruler of Syria, corruption and terrorism will only shift from ISIL to Assad. He has to know that the United States will not make deals with him as we first focus our attention on ISIL. And when the time comes, if he is unwilling to come to the negotiating table, this new effort will give him no alternative but to negotiate or be defeated.

This approach has wide support from many Syrian experts on the right and left, and is thoroughly outlined in a paper on this subject by Ambassador Frederic Hof at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador Hof summarizes his thoughts, “Time is our enemy, and incre­men­tal approaches produce too much time for the bad guys. ISIS has no voluntary constitu­ency in Syria. But give it three years to sink roots and Obama’s successor will have mission impossible on his hands. We and our regional partners need to beat ISIS in Syria now.”[3]

Half the population of Syria is now displaced, with Jordan and Lebanon bearing an enormous amount of the burden: Syrian displaced persons and refugees now make up 35 percent of Lebanon’s population, and 20 percent of Jordan’s. This situation is extremely destabi­lizing and is surely too much to handle for both countries.

Assad has already lost and will not rule the new Syria, no matter what the outcome. Either ISIL or US allies will be the eventual winner. Our preferred choice is to win at the negotiating table once Assad and company see our resolve, or alternatively by putting in place a new government in former ISIL-controlled areas.

When this is over, countries in the region will either see the United States as a depend­able partner, or abandon us for what they perceive as more reliable partners in Europe, Russia, or China. Even after four years of timid leadership in the region, the choice is still ours.

Electing a President for Lebanon – Like in 2008?

Lebanon has not had a president – who must be a Maronite Christian under a power-sharing agreement – since President Michel Sleiman’s term expired on May 24, 2014. In the meantime, the council of ministers – which assumes presidential powers during a vacancy – has been paralyzed, because most decrees need the signatures of all 24 ministers, a nigh impossible task.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam has thrown up his hands and conceded in various meetings with heads of state and foreign ministers in New York last week that his country’s political factions can’t elect a president.

The prime minister advocates a quadripartite consensus on a presidential candidate. He believes that only the intervention of the four major external players in the region can unblock the current impasse. There would be a first-stage US-Russia agreement and a second-stage Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement on one candidate. It is then assumed that the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would influence Lebanon’s parliamentary blocs to elect the pre-selected candidate. The prime minister asserted that of Lebanon’s 11 presidential elections, only one – the 1970 election – was not decided without the influence of external parties.

Let’s examine the Prime Minister’s proposal.

One could argue that the 1952 and 1964 elections were also Lebanese affairs, but there is no question that every presidential election since 1976 was midwifed by foreign intervention. This is not ideal – and many Lebanese are disturbed by the implications – but it appears the reality. In 1988, the US and Syria agreed among themselves on Mikhail Daher as the presidential candidate, only to have powerful Lebanese factions reject him. So there has to be Lebanese buy-in.

Lebanon’s 2008 presidential election provides the model for a diplomatic solution. In 2008, Lebanon was suffering a 6-month presidential vacancy. During times of profound discord, Lebanon holds a “national dialogue,” to which all political factions are invited. In 2008, the national dialogue was moved from Beirut to Doha, Qatar and under the supervision of Arab League and Arab diplomats, the Doha agreement was signed, specifying a “consensus president,” a formula for a national unity government, and a parliamentary election law. Similarly in 1989, the Arab League tripartite committee of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria invited the Lebanese parliament to Taif, Saudi Arabia. The resulting Taif accord, with behind-the-scenes US mediation, established a framework for ending the civil war, enacting constitutional reforms, and electing a president.

Can a modified Doha or Taif model work again?

Parliament has tried 28 times to convene a session to elect a president. Deputies from the Free Patriot Movement, Hezbollah, and some allied parties have boycotted the sessions to prevent a quorum. Iran would need to participate in any diplomatic effort, to bring Hezbollah along. Despite US-Russia animus over Syria, the American and Russian positions on Lebanon are quite similar, including the need to elect a president. Saudi Arabia would ensure that the views of Lebanon’s March 14 parliamentary bloc were considered.

Where could such a “national reconciliation conference” be held? Arab countries such as Oman and Morocco would be seen as neutral and are experienced facilitators of dialogue on contentious issues. Back-channel discussions by the host country with the four essential countries would need to determine if dialogue is even possible, given the frosty relations of the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

As in 2008, buy-in from most Lebanese political factions would be essential. The “national dialogue” already started meeting in Beirut this September. It can be moved to wherever a new consensus site is selected. This “national reconciliation conference” could officially approve any agreement, with strong inducements from American, Russian, Saudi, and Iranian diplomats.

And while they’re at it, the national reconciliation conference could choose a new election law for parliament, which has twice deferred elections. Just as in 2008. I’m not minimizing the diplomatic heavy lifting, but given the fragile nature of Lebanon, with ISIL threatening its border and 1.2 million Syrian refugees having crossed its border, we need to be concerned about Lebanon’s governance and not only its military.

Edward M. Gabriel
 is a former US Ambassador to Morocco and currently serves as President and CEO of the American Task Force for Lebanon.