Will Reform Save Lebanon?

In any discussion of Lebanon’s future, there is always the nagging question, “Will reform come, and even if it does, will it be too late?” Somewhere in this discussion, questions of trust and transparency will come up, especially regarding the financial sector – banks and banking that is as well as questions concerning the money supply and the value of the lira.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when trying to understand how money is valued and ascertaining if it actually is worth more than the paper it is printed on. A two-part series in L’Orient-Le Jour on the new income tax system makes the point that with so many exchange rates, someone has to be burned in the trade between the dollar and the lira.  In this case, it is the person being paid in lira, not dollars, that loses the most. There are at least three daily rates – the market rate, the Sayrafa rate posted by the BdL, and the consumer rate posted for transactions. There are also various rates established by the national budget. It isn’t hard to see how someone with basic trading instincts can manipulate the currency and the banks into a profitable exchange even when using the government’s exchange platform. “There is now a severe differential tax treatment favoring those who are paid salaries in US dollars over those who are paid in LBP, as the same real amount would effectively be subjected to two different tax rates,” the IMF says.

“[The IMF] has called reversing the decline in revenue a ‘critical element’ of the reforms needed for Lebanon to make its way out of the crisis.” Without a predictable revenue flow, the government cannot budget or provide a reliable floor for investors or loans from other countries.  This is problematic for the Lebanese government in seeking to do any reliable planning or allocations for projects. “The income tax brackets used in Lebanon’s 2022 budget — which, against the recommendation of the IMF and outside experts, were not indexed to inflation — have tripled.” Meaning people paid lira at the official rate of 15,500 /$ get clobbered while those paid in dollars can take advantage of a market rate of 80,000/$ and pay their bills in lira.

Charles Arbid, president of the Economic and Social Council said: “We fear that Lebanon as we know it is changing under the leaders who could not care less about its fate.’’ This is where the international community and the overseas Lebanese come in. As the single largest source of stability for Lebanon’s failed economy, their decisions regarding support for the Lebanese will help rebuild the banking sector and the monetary system.

Without encouraging expats to fund the government itself, there are interventions that can be made to support the Lebanese in towns and villages via the hope for implementation of a suggested new decentralization law that would allow municipalities and other entities to sell power produced by renewable energy on the local level to the national grid. Decentralization can put basic services in the hands of the communities. Lebanon already has several serious studies underway looking at various modes of decentralization, which can serve as the basis for a national strategy. With the municipal elections approaching, there is an opportunity to mobilize a grass-roots effort to give power-sharing of power production to those communities willing to take up the challenge.  Obviously Lebanon has the talent and the industry to make a green economy a win-win for the national and local governments. At least it beats waiting for parliament to adopt the IMF reforms and gives consumers the satisfaction of having some control over a part of their lives.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Lebanon to the Rescue? Lebanon’s Humanitarian Mission to Turkey and Syria is Saving Lives.

It is difficult to imagine Lebanon being in a position to help anyone as it struggles to carry itself out of its worst economic and political crisis. However, there is enough strength and conviction from the Lebanese to show solidarity with their neighbors Turkey and Syria. Both countries have suffered terrible losses in human life and property from one of the worst earthquakes in the region’s history.

On February 6th, the world woke up to watch scenes of crumbling buildings and thousands of people dying and injured in Turkey and Syria from a magnitude 7.5 earthquake. It struck central and southern Turkey, and western Syria. The Turkish city of Gaziantep was the most badly damaged. Its effects could be felt across the region, as far as Lebanon and Cyprus. For some Lebanese, it reminded them of the seconds before the August 2020 Beirut explosion that devastated half the city and killed hundreds. 

It is difficult to assess the precise number of people killed and injured. The latest report  is 40,000 and counting. Reuters quoted Turkish President Tayyib Erdogan saying he vows to rebuild as more rescue missions press on. 

The Turkish government is trying to do everything it can to house people who were forced onto the streets after seeing their homes destroyed. This is not an easy mission for either the Turkish or Syrian governments. 

Although fewer people have died in Syria, they have had to live with several different crises at a single time. 10 years of civil war destroyed most of the necessary infrastructure that would have been utilized in response to the earthquake. To make matters worse, Syria is still under heavy sanctions by the western countries,. According to a report from AP, the sanctions are making aid deliveries more challenging and restrictive. Still, global organizations like the United Nations, governments, and grassroots organizations are making all efforts to guarantee supplies reach the victims. 

Once the magnitude of the quake’s destruction could be seen, Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, asked caretaker Ministers Nasser Yassin and Ali Hamieh to contact their Syrian and Turkish counterparts to assess what kind of assistance their countries require.

Lebanon’s contingency of rescue workers in the form of the Civil Defense and soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were sent by Beirut to help in the aftershocks of the earthquake. 

On February 7th, a team of twenty members made up of the Lebanese Civil Defense traveled to Syria as part of a search and rescue mission. Once they crossed the border, they began immediately to provide emergency relief for Syrians badly affected and it proved to have positive outcomes. Footage of videos can be seen on Twitter showing the Civil Defense working alongside the Lebanese Red Cross saving the lives of a Syrian mother and her child after 5 days of being trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings.The Lebanese army had ordered a dispatch of 20 soldiers from its Engineering Regiment to Syria to reinforce help in cooperation with teams working in the worst affected areas. 

Minister for Public Works and Transport Ali Hamieh said Lebanon will waive taxes and fees for any humanitarian aid arriving at its airports and ports.

Despite it being a cash-strapped country where its own citizens are also struggling to manage with daily inflation and shortages, Lebanon finds ways to meet its regional responsibilities. But it’s not only the government that is rushing to give a helping hand. Grassroots organizations are also moving rapidly to respond to the victim’s needs and coordinate with each other to ease their suffering in this humanitarian catastrophe. 

In the Latakia region of Syria, Salam li Ardi (Peace in our land), a coalition of different grassroots operations working together to assist all whose lives have been affected by this earthquake. They have delivered batches of goods in the form of medical supplies, blankets, and recruited volunteers to distribute the material in record time. 

Alya, Melissa, Michel, and Dorothea, coordinators for one of the groups, spoke about the nature and specifics of the mission in Syria. She described the organization as a community made of several grassroots operations. A human-centered initiative with no political affiliation whatsoever. 

“Our first group of people have arrived with the first batch of donations.” “We have a lot of donors and donations coming, hand in cash and online.” 

They opened a small kitchen to prepare meals for all in need and are assisting homes which are welcoming families in desperation. The situation has grown more critical as more people search for ways to rebuild their lives. One area of difficulty organizations find themselves in is security problems they face entering Syria. People are finding it hard to travel safely to help. Some are complaining that efforts to have life saving supplies delivered in a timely manner are being mitigated by a long tedious process of red tape from the Syrian government. If any more progress is to be made, the security issue for volunteers traveling to Syria must be immediately addressed. 

Still, one could call this a  “Lebanese initiative.” The speed in which Lebanon responded was impressive and a demonstration to show solidarity, regardless of its own internal problems. 

Nevertheless, the region is still in the early phase of recovery. It will take a long time before both countries manage to totally reverse the devastations unleashed on their populations. Thankfully, neither are working alone. Lebanon, like most of the international community, answered the call and support has not ceased to save as many lives from this natural disaster. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Why Form a Study Group Focused on Vulnerable Populations in Lebanon: An Appeal For Workable Solutions

Following a recent visit to Lebanon, experts from the American Task Force on Lebanon expressed strong concern that the Syrian refugee crisis was an issue deserving of more intentional focus. And, despite the frequent mention of Syrian refugees in the meetings with ATFL’s delegation in Lebanon, the delegation returned to Washington with more questions than answers.

What was clear, however, were the stakes underlying many of the passion-inducing conversations about Syrian refugees. Some interlocutors we met expressed their frustrations with what they considered to be an unacceptable disparity of humanitarian support, based on a perception of aid that prioritizes Syrian populations in Lebanon and overshadows vulnerable Lebanese populations. Others expressed concern that frustrated Lebanese government officials are unfairly blaming Syrian refugees in part for their own self-induced problems, pitting one group against another, with potentially disastrous implications.

The reality in Lebanon is that host, refugee, and other migrant populations all face unimaginably difficult living conditions and precarious prospects for their immediate futures. The majority of the Lebanese people are now under the poverty line and have experienced an egregious set of failures and criminality from their own government. This has thrown most refugees and migrant domestic workers, deprived of their basic human rights and persecuted by an exploitative labor system, into this economic and political nightmare as well.

The 7.8-magnitude Kahramanmaras earthquake that resulted in massive losses of life and displacement on February 6, 2023 was felt all across the Eastern Mediterranean region, with its epicenter situated in Southern Turkey, close to the Syrian border. In Syria alone, the rescue and recovery effort in its Northwestern region faces many political complications.

While Lebanon is not the only country to do so, offers of humanitarian assistance and material support for this natural disaster relief have been directed to the regime by several foreign governments. This assistance corresponds with ongoing questions about international normalization with the Assad regime, and raises concerns for those who oppose the regime’s opportunistic maneuvers to benefit from this influx of aid coming into Syria.

Further, the deteriorating value of the currency and overall economic situation in Lebanon has worsened everyone’s problems – plunging nearly all groups into a compounded state of economic hardship and humanitarian crisis. When crises that at first seem temporary become unsustainably prolonged, however, the tools and choices at the disposal of governments as well as multi-lateral and non-governmental organizations, let alone for host and refugee populations, become less clear-cut and effective.

For this reason, the discussion about Syrian refugees in Lebanon has noticeably become more urgent and passionate, with a clear and objective understanding of the problem supplanted by stories not based in fact. Objective facts surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon are therefore hard to understand, with unsubstantiated anecdotal stories filling this void.

Only impossible choices have been given to Lebanon’s most vulnerable populations. Given the growing pressure of refugees on the region, the recent earthquake, and economic disaster in Lebanon, it is now time to bring together a group of experts to unravel the real facts that underlie the refugee problem in Lebanon and look for new and creative solutions addressing all vulnerable populations in Lebanon, which include both struggling Lebanese and Syrian refugees.

Refugees and refugee crises are and have been the subject of politicization all over the world. In Lebanon, however, host and refugee communities are both struggling, and seemingly to no end. A broad group of experts may be able to not only come up with a clear understanding of the facts affecting both the host and refugee communities but also bring the stakes and workable solutions of this problem to the attention of US policymakers.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Beyond the Physical Costs of Normalization with Syria

As the slow process of reintegrating Syria into the Arab world and broader region picks up momentum, we must confront the demon behind the regime if we are going to have any stability in the region. There are only victims and the regime left standing after almost 13 years of civil war. With a half of the population left displaced or a casualty of conflict, and with an economy left in ruins, it is clear that the hundreds of sanctions put in place have not deterred the Assad regime, which has successfully been able to rely on Russia for its international cover, in addition to various regional actors, allowing it to continue functioning.

The regime’s alliances with prominent Lebanese politicians, particularly in the north of the country, has continued even after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005. Today, some of the most well-known politicians are still referred to as pro-Syrian, despite Lebanon’s heavy-handed treatment by the Assad regime reflecting Syria’s continued refusal to recognize Lebanon as a separate and independent country.

The status of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon is emblematic of the love-hate relationship that has been congealing since the onset of war in Syria, after which more than a million people fled for their lives to Lebanon, many settling in the Sunni areas in the north, Bekaa Valley, and around Saida.  While the initial waves of refugees were welcomed in Lebanon, their impact on education, health, and social support services exposed deep divides with host communities as the Lebanese economy and social fabric deteriorated after 2018.

The bulk of international assistance through 2022 was channeled through international NGOs and Lebanese and Syrian government organizations, leading to charges from disaffected Lebanese that the refugees were benefiting from their status and not contributing to the overall health of their host country. The actual dimensions of this dissatisfaction and abuse are largely a result of critical dis- and misinformation from those who carry resentment of the years-long intrusion to civil life caused by the refugee presence and the lack of an effective organized response from the Lebanese government.

With regard to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, as a recent assessment arguing against a rapprochement put it, “One has to ask what there is to be gained by any government seriously re-engaging and normalizing ties with Assad’s regime. Syria’s economy is in free-fall, with spiraling inflation, crippling electricity shortages, and more than 90% of Syrians living under the poverty line. Food costs have risen by 30% and fuel prices have surged by at least 44%…” “The working week has been cut to four days and working overtime has been banned. Yet amid such economic collapse, the Assad regime has managed an illegal international drug trade worth over $50 billion a year since 2021. None of those proceeds have gone toward assisting Syrians in need.”

So if one is assessing if recent moves toward normalization will create some “kinder, gentler” regime, one confronts a continuation of the hyper-paranoid regime vis-à-vis the liberation areas of the northeast and southwest where Syrians are still fighting, often with international support. Yet, it cannot be overlooked that “Efforts to bring Assad in from the cold after more than a decade of isolation due to the brutal war and repression in Syria have been years in the making. The latest push may reflect wider geopolitical trends more than any new reality setting in within Syria itself.”

As a World Politics Review article pointed out, “The war is empowering Erdogan to attract more Russian support for countering Kurdish forces in Syria, a primary concern for Turkey and the source of continued angst in Washington, particularly with the prospect of a Turkish incursion into Syria looming. Erdogan may also see value in reconciling with Assad ahead of Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections in which the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees still living in the country could become a campaign issue.”

None of this maneuvering is easing the plight of the refugees in Lebanon. The recent earthquake notwithstanding, their status has become an increasingly politicized issue based on the discrimination and displacement felt in the host communities and the broader Lebanese population as well. It is yet another tragedy in the Middle East that requires the consensus of a number of countries, both in the region and international arena, who believe they can benefit from the disarray that is Syria.

Meanwhile, the host communities continue to see their way of life diminished and threatened by politicians and governments who have different priorities than improving the quality of life for host and refugee communities. As Lebanon continues its descent into pauper statehood, it is absolutely unnecessary for the status of the refugees and the host communities to be a zero sum game. It’s no game to begin with. These are real people with real lives. And they are all in danger of becoming refugees from political turmoil or from political inaction. They deserve better.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. This above image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.