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.