Beyond the Physical Costs of Normalization with Syria

Thursday, February 9, 2023
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

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.