Lebanon must unite factions to withstand its economic situation

It is more than six months since the Lebanese parliament was elected and the leadership of the caretaker government has faced many challenges in attempting to form a government. Made up of the 18 diverse religious sects — including Christians, Druze and Sunni and Shiite Muslims — the government, most analysts believe, cannot withstand much more inaction and quarreling among the factions without irreparably damaging the country’s future.

It is as if a house is burning and five fire trucks show up to put out the fire — but rather than working together to extinguish the blaze, they quarrel about in which part of the house the flames should be extinguished first, who should hold each truck’s hose, and who is in control of the hose in the first place. The fire rages out of control, maybe to the point of no return.

The World Bank in its Fall 2018 report has downgraded Lebanon’s gross national product growth to 1 percent, a devastating growth rate for a country in desperate need of a functioning economy.  Foreign receipts are down as well, which puts the Central Bank in the position of having to beef up “its stock of foreign exchange reserves, lengthening the maturity of deposits and limiting the liquidity available, thereby inhibiting speculation against the Lebanese pound,” which is an “unsustainable path,” according to the bank.

Lebanon has the third-largest debt to gross domestic product ratio in the world; poverty is expected to rise; and the fiscal deficit is expected to rise from 6.6 percent to 8.3 percent.

The international community has done all it can to help and it’s now time for the Lebanese to act. Three international donor conferences have been held this year. In March, some 40 countries participated in a meeting, along with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, “to reaffirm their commitment to the stability, security, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon, offering hundreds of million dollars in military and security aid.” This is in addition to the more than $100 million a year in U.S. aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

At the Friends of Syria donor conference in Brussels in May, donor countries pledged $4.4 billion in refugee humanitarian support to Lebanon, Syria and other neighboring refugee-hosting countries. Most importantly, Lebanon won aid pledges exceeding $11 billion in April at a Paris CEDRE conference aimed at rallying international support for an investment program to boost its economy. The CEDRE project, plus the privatization of some government entities, seems to be the only answer to Lebanon’s economic downturn.

Most of the aid, however, is conditioned on a new government instituting policies that deal with privatization and economic reforms in a transparent process, as well as other guarantees in line with international norms. When Africa Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank Group vice president for Middle East and North Africa, visited Lebanon recently, he warned that Lebanon “might lose the loans and grants promised during the CEDRE conference, should the cabinet formation get further delayed.” The message was clear: Your economy is in danger and the loans decided for Lebanon could be given to other states.

The struggle to form a government remains the same: Anti- and pro-Hezbollah elements struggle over the makeup that Hezbollah and its allies will end up with. The United States has warned clearly that U.S. aid could be in jeopardy if Hezbollah increases its influence in the government, particularly if it controls a service ministry such as the Health Ministry, where services and favors can be doled out at the local level, thus increasing its influence and popularity.

As the designated prime minister, Hariri is struggling with this latest stalemate engineered by Hezbollah to balance international aid agencies’ requirements with the need to form a government without creating a situation that could prompt another civil war among the factions.

All of this goes on while the “house of Lebanon” burns. It is up to the Lebanese people to demand their government take back its responsibility to govern, protect its sovereignty, and push back against elements inside the country who care more about sectarian interests than the national interests of Lebanon.

Edward Gabriel is president of the American Task Force for Lebanon and a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco (1997-2001).

UNIFIL Mandate Renewed Amid Continuing Concerns and Qualified Support from Security Council

Edward M. Gabriel (Morocco, 1997-2001) and Jean AbiNader

On August 30th the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) for a year. UN Security Council members expressed serious concerns, according to VOANews.com, “that violations of the cease-fire agreement between Lebanon and Israel could lead to a new conflict and urged international support for Lebanon’s armed forces and their stepped up deployment in the south and at sea.”

Rodney Hunter, the USUN Mission’s political coordinator, told the UN Security Council during its meeting that twelve years after the council imposed an arms embargo “it is unacceptable that Hezbollah continues to flout this embargo, Lebanon’s sovereignty, and the will of the majority of Lebanese people.”

The centerpiece of UNIFIL’s mandate is UNSC Resolution 1701, which limits the flow of arms into the southern region of Lebanon, provides for routine meetings between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) brokered by UNIFIL (the only direct contact between Lebanon and Israel), calls for disarming the area south of the Litani River, and assists the LAF forces in providing security throughout south Lebanon.

Following a visit with UNIFIL in its Beirut office in July, we heard a different story about claims of Hezbollah’s armed infiltration in southern Lebanon from those expressed during the UN renewal. Our UNIFIL briefer said that it conducts 14,000 patrols a month with fully deployed Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) using its 10,000-person force drawn from more than 40 countries. They state that they have not found any strategic weapons or large arms caches in the geographical area of their mandate or border infractions, other than hunters with rifles and reports of shepherds in the area.

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Statements that don’t distinguish between UNIFIL’s work along Israel’s border versus concerns with Hezbollah action in other parts of Lebanon can be misleading or worse, lead to a new conflict.  Recognizing the potential for misunderstanding, the UN urged “all parties” to exercise “maximum calm and restraint and refrain from any action or rhetoric that could jeopardize the cessation of hostilities or destabilize the region.”

It is time for the Administration and Congress to make its own assessment in southern Lebanon. Congress and the Administration should conduct visits in the UNIFIL mandated area and fully assess actions on the ground with the objective to clarify and strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate and its support of the LAF.  It must also distinguish between the actions of the UN and LAF in the south, under the UNIFIL mandate, from potential concerns in other parts of Lebanon. A clear assessment by the US, including accepting an invitation by UNIFIL to overfly suspected weapons, should be part of that assessment.

US military assistance is critical for the Lebanese Armed Forces growing role in the south in line with Resolution 1701; and efforts to undermine that bilateral relationship between the US and Lebanon only play into the hands of Russia, which has increased its pressure for a bilateral security relationship with Lebanon, something Lebanon has resisted to date.

Although not perfect, it appears that progress with the LAF and UNIFIL mandate is being made. Now is the time for the US to examine the situation with firsthand knowledge in order to advance US objectives in southern Lebanon, strengthen the LAF in its mission throughout the country and protect Lebanon’s territorial integrity from terrorism and outside interference.

Edward M. Gabriel is the former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, currently President of the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) and a member of the Council of American Ambassadors. Jean AbiNader is a senior adviser to ATFL.

US-Russia cooperation could ensure safer repatriation of Syrian refugees

As American policymakers begin to learn more details about the summit between Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki, a proposal has emerged to jointly collaborate on a humanitarian plan to address the massive Syrian refugee problem.

The Russians signaled that they would like to work with the Americans in drawing up a joint action plan to bring Syrian refugees back to the homes they fled before the civil war broke out in 2011. “The active advancement in this direction has been helped by the agreements reached by the presidents of Russia and the United States during the summit in Helsinki,” Mikhail Mizintsev, a Russian ministry official, was quoted by TASS as saying. Mizintsev said preliminary assessments indicate 890,000 refugees soon could return to Syria from Lebanon, 300,000 from Turkey and 200,000 from European Union countries.

 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed such a discussion, saying, “There was a discussion between President Trump and President Putin about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back.” The United Nations, however, is hesitant to declare Syria safe for the refugees to return. The United States rightly agrees, and is cautious about fully embracing any plan until it has some guarantee of the safety of returning Syrians.

 

During a recent visit to Lebanon, the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) met with the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and returned with the belief that this is a problem beyond the mandate of UNHCR — a higher level of political cooperation is required to move repatriation forward.

Depending on their situation, some refugees want to return home, and could do so safely, but many others find it too dangerous to go back now. The UNHCR is adept at protecting refugees, ensuring that those who are vulnerable understand the consequences of returning, have the correct paperwork to re-enter their homes, and have the support necessary to restart their lives. But the UNHCR is not mandated to get involved in geopolitical issues.

Some Lebanese officials believe it is important to engage with Syria at a higher political level to assess when and how refugees can return home. Others, including the United States, view such an engagement as acquiescing to the Syrian government’s claim that the civil war has ended and it is safe for refugees to return.

It is important for U.S. influence in the Middle East that it remain a principal party in examining the refugee situation and determining a safe process for their eventual repatriation. It would not be in America’s interest to sit on the sidelines while the Russians and Syria’s neighbors devise a plan to alleviate the problem without U.S. input.

Because direct engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government by Lebanon is fraught with potential problems, and the UNHCR is not politically empowered to deal with the situation, the best alternative falls on Russia and the United States. Notwithstanding Russia’s potential ulterior motives for proposing it, and the disagreements between our countries on other Syrian matters, the discussion at the Helsinki summit indicates an understanding of the importance of U.S.-Russia involvement in this humanitarian problem.

The time to repatriate refugees may be debatable, but the time to begin the process is not. A U.S.-Russia effort should start by identifying those who are capable of returning to Syria, determining how to ensure their safety, and the timing for their repatriation. Without U.S. engagement, Russia would have another opportunity to curry favor in the region and place another wedge between the United States and Syria’s neighbors.

Now is the time for the United States to initiate a process that allows it to influence — and, ultimately, guarantee — the safe return of Syrian refugees.

Edward M. Gabriel is president of the American Task Force for Lebanon and former U.S. ambassador to Morocco (1997-2001).

Lebanon at a crossroads, more than any other time

A group of Americans of Lebanese descent, prominent in the fields of business, finance and policymaking, recently held more than two dozen meetings in Lebanon, including extensive discussions with the government, business, civil society and United Nations agencies. Their conclusion: Lebanon is in a dire situation.

The usual response that the Lebanese are resilient and will get through it no longer is realistic. They are in the midst of a severe economic crisis, and the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country, who are pressuring Lebanon’s economy and services, have only made it worse. The economic problem can be addressed if the Lebanese government undertakes needed reforms. But the refugee situation cannot be solved by the Lebanese alone, and the upcoming summit between Presidents Trump and Putin could provide a framework for addressing this issue.

 

Economically, Lebanon has a slow growth rate and is dependent on foreign remittances and transfers. A perceived lack of security hurts the real estate market and tourism. The government acknowledges the problems of corruption, a lack of transparency and a bloated government that will bankrupt the country if not corrected. Badly needed infrastructure development is nonexistent.

 

There are signs of hope. The Central Bank is working closely with the U.S. government to stop terrorist monies from flowing through the banking system and gets high marks from the international community for its efficiency and professionalism in stabilizing the country.

There are two immediate programs to aid economic stability and job creation. This year the international donor community in Paris offered some $11 billion in concessional loans for infrastructure development, with the proviso the government will implement reforms and promote budget stability and transparency. Securing this funding will add substantially to the country’s growth if it complies with the necessary reforms.

The other opportunity involves the privatization of government entities, such as the energy, power and water sectors, which could add $1.5 billion to $2 billion to the projected budget.

An equally devastating problem is the refugee crisis in Lebanon: nearly 2 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. In a country of about 4.5 million people, this is the highest percentage of refugees of any country in the world, and adds to an exploding crime rate, unbearable traffic congestion and a deterioration of jobs and educational quality (e.g. there are now more non-Lebanese than Lebanese attending public schools in Lebanon).

It is obvious from our visit that the Lebanese have reached their limit to absorb such a large influx of people, and many worry that the Syrian refugees will end up like the Palestinians, who have been living in Lebanon for 70 years. Lebanon has been a model for tolerance, in which Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and more than a dozen religious sects live together and share in the governance of their country, but this situation is testing their patience and willingness to cooperate with the international community.

In the short term, the leadership and conviction of Russia and the United States is required. Syria seems reluctant to cooperate. The United Nations agency charged with refugee issues (UNHCR) works effectively in Beirut on a technical level but doesn’t have the mandate to deal with strategic decisions on how to move the process forward. Lebanese officials are split on whether they should negotiate directly with the Assad government, and some even wonder whether it would make a difference if they did.

This calls for Russia and the United States to engage the Syrian government and United Nations to guarantee the safety of Syrian refugees to return home. Some refugees are less vulnerable to return than others. Some males are subject to conscription, or are members of the opposition; others may be unable to provide paperwork to prove ownership of vacated properties; and still others may have had their homes and businesses destroyed.

But many already are traveling back and forth between Syria and Lebanon and have homes intact in towns where they can seek the help of relief agencies. The Lebanese government and UNHCR should begin a process to identify families that are not vulnerable and could return under certain international security guarantees.

Most importantly, however, is the upcoming Trump-Putin summit. The United States should not miss the opportunity to join with Russia to establish a joint cooperation group, including Syria’s neighbors (Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan) to expedite the safe return of refugees as soon as possible.

There is a unique opportunity to turn this crisis around at the upcoming summit and address this festering humanitarian crisis. It is our hope that President Trump puts this issue on his agenda with President Putin.

Edward M. Gabriel is president of the American Task Force for Lebanon and former U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

Lebanon must begin taking its dissociation policy more seriously

The warning signs of an impending confrontation between Israel and Lebanon are on the rise and should be of great concern to the Lebanese government and international community. Most experts conclude it’s not in either party’s interest to initiate military actions against the other, although some policymakers are now suggesting that a provocative process is unfolding that would give Israel cause to escalate military action in Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has made its redlines clear, and threatening movements by Iran or the regime in Syria, or Hezbollah from Lebanon, could result in an unfortunate miscalculation, if not an excuse, for Israel to move against Lebanon.

The rhetoric is worsening. New disagreements in the past few weeks have brought an experienced diplomat, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, to the region in an attempt to calm tensions between Lebanon and Israel, especially with regard to border disputes. This follows the statement of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reported in Reuters that Lebanon’s latest oil exploration plans were “very, very challenging and provocative.” This resulted in exchanges of threats between the far-right minister and Hezbollah to wage a full-scale war with one another.

 

Additionally, a new escalation between Iran and Israel in Syria appears to have opened up, following Iran’s bold move to send a drone into Israel territory, which resulted in a downed Israeli jet when Israel attacked the drone’s control center manned by Iranians and Russians. In retaliation, Israel boldly bombed Syrian anti-aircraft facilities.

Many experts have warned that a regional war that neither side wants could be only “a miscalculation away.” In a new report from the Brookings Institution, authors Dror Michman and Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud state, “These actions prove that Israel is ready and able to couple its warnings with force, to make the other parties pay a real price.”

As the rhetoric and military escalation increase, the U.S. has asserted itself in the middle of the dispute, a welcome sign to help separate Lebanon from a widening regional war. There is a clear U.S. policy supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Lebanon.

Following Saudi Arabia’s November detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad El-Din Rafik Hariri, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasted no time announcing his support for “the stability of Lebanon,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces, and cautioning “against any party against using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country.” The White House issued a similarly strong message.

Satterfield has been clear in emphasizing U.S. support for Lebanese institutions, saying at a forum in Tel Aviv, “We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which is the only legitimate force in Lebanon.”

These U.S. statements have even more meaning — and are quite amazing — as they come at the very time that Israel says it sees no difference between the LAF and Hezbollah, accusing Iran of constructing underground missile factories in Syria and Lebanon.

The dichotomy in statements between the U.S. and Israel could signal a policy shift, focusing on actions of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah outside of Lebanon, as long as Hezbollah does not pursue aggressive actions from Lebanon, such as building missile factories or other aggressive acts against Israel. In addition, U.S. resolve to protect rebel held safe zones in eastern and southern Syria, combined with the Israeli actions in Syria, appear to be aimed at a more strategic regional approach, rather than one than punishes Lebanon with little or no long term strategy.

Lebanon stands to gain from this new sense of U.S. policy. The time and effort that Satterfield and Tillerson have devoted is an encouraging sign. Responsibility now falls to Lebanon to keep its part of the bargain and put teeth behind its dissociation policy, extricating itself from regional conflicts whether in Lebanon or outside.

Edward Gabriel served as U.S. ambassador to Morocco from 1997-2001 and is currently president of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Another war between Lebanon and Israel

The war of words between Israel and its neighbors has hit a new high along with escalating military action. Recently, Israel attacked Syrian anti-aircraft facilities, the first time Israeli jets had been targeted by Syria since its civil war began. Within days after the first attack, Israel struck again reacting to threats in the Golan Heights. PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel will continue to respond forcefully to any attacks. Iran’s military chief, during a recent visit to Syria, said it was unacceptable to allow Israel to threaten Syrian assets. Such hostilities could very easily spill over to Lebanon, with Iran the only winner if Israel becomes further embroiled in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has to decide where its loyalties lie. Is it with Lebanon or with Iran and Syria? If Hezbollah amasses missiles on the border with Israel, Israel said it will unleash much more widespread damage to the country than in 2006. That war, which lasted 34 days, killed 1,200 Lebanese and displaced nearly one million more of its citizens. Lebanon’s economy suffered more than $7 billion in direct and indirect losses. If Hezbollah again threatens Israel’s borders, Israel could strike, creating greater economic turmoil and the flow of more refugees.

History has taught us that threats by Israel can also further destabilize its own security and increase regional tensions. In 2006, instead of blaming Hezbollah, Israel’s military attack alienated it in the region, as many Lebanese looked to Hezbollah as their protector. The war in 2006 did not weaken Hezbollah, and it even looked stronger in the face of a much better-armed adversary. According toIsraeli pundits, Israeli military leaders erred in believing that pressure on the Lebanese government would force the Lebanese government and its people to weaken Hezbollah’s influence and alternatively strengthening the Lebanese army. The opposite happened. One Israeli commander, Gen. Udi Adam, said following that war, “There is nothing that can be solved just by the military … There is a need for a diplomatic solution,” adding, “I do not believe that anyone wants to go back into Lebanon.”

 

Yet, now once again, the threat of war looms.

It’s a frustrating situation for Israel and its allies, but also for Lebanon, and the worst thing would be to allow conditions that lead to another war in the Middle East, with no long-term solution, while devastating a country that has little control over its own situation in the first place.

Lebanon’s Armed Forces (LAF) has proven to be credible and independent from outside interference, as it protects Lebanon’s borders against threats from the Islamic State and al Qaeda. The U.S. supports an LAF strong enough to eventually disarm all groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, in accordance with U.N. resolution 1701. But a war now, between the LAF and Hezbollah, will only lead to another civil war, and like the last one, will weaken Lebanon for decades to come. It is in no one’s interest to have Lebanon fall into the hands of Iran and its proxies, but it’s not Lebanon’s alone to fix.

Iran is trying to create an axis of resistance from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon via Hezbollah, sitting on the doorstep of Israel. Do the U.S. and Israel really think that Lebanon can fix this problem, when the U.S. and Russia themselves can’t find some kind of accommodation, and when the U.S. has been bungling its chances to put a stop to Syrian hostilities since 2011? And who in their right mind thinks that Israeli bombing of Lebanon (and even Iran) will bring a final resolution to this problem?

It is not in the U.S. interest to tolerate senseless talk about bombing Lebanon into taking actions it has little control over, and which will leave Lebanon in ruins. It may give comfort to those who see Iran as an existential threat, but will do nothing to fix the longer term problems in the region. Sensible policymakers know they must be deft in their thinking and make sure they don’t make a difficult situation worse. The U.S. has to work with its allies — Israel, the European Union, and Arab countries — to bring about a common strategy in the region which only U.S. leadership can provide for these disparate groups, whose interests are now aligned.

Such a strategy must integrate U.S. goals in the broader Middle East, Turkey, and even Eastern Europe into a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for dealing with Russia, Iran and its proxies while continuing to address three immediate objectives: strengthening the LAF, in spite of Iran and Hezbollah’s effort to discredit it; improving Lebanon’s economy by working closely with its Central Bank; and weeding out specific terrorists in the country that threaten the workings of these two institutions and the very stability of Lebanon.

Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and current president of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

Lebanon is the first line of defense for America’s interests in the Middle East

Lebanon is a country of 4.5 million people hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees—the equivalent, percentage-wise, of all of Canada and half of Mexico flowing into the U.S. in about four years. In meetings I had last week in Beirut, the country’s Minister of Refugees told me that Lebanon is the “sandbag” against a rising flood that keeps this problem from overflowing to Europe and the West. And after speaking with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and other top government officials, I fear that Lebanon may not be able to cope much longer.

The Lebanese have borne direct and indirect costs of nearly $20 billion as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis, in a country with an annual GDP of $48 billion. Half the refugee children are not in school (which are plagued by overcrowding), power shortages produce less than half the needed electricity, only one-third of households have access to clean water, and the environmental damage from lack of sewage treatment is a disaster.

Meanwhile, the country needs to protect its borders from al Qaeda and ISIS, a daily threat to the country and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

 

Fortunately, America has shown its trust in and support of the LAF, supplying more than 90 percent of its equipment, logistical support, and training. In return, the LAF have refused to accept military hardware from Russia and Iran, preferring its privileged relationship with the U.S. In our discussions with the new Commander of the LAF, General Joseph Aoun, who is visiting the U.S. this week, it was strikingly apparent that the U.S. has a real partner and collaborator in the wider fight against terrorism in the region.

As the U.S. considers new budget constraints, now is not the time to decrease support for the LAF. A consistent multi-year commitment from the United States is vitally needed in order for Lebanon to be able to prepare multi-year strategies with our military, to properly plan together in our shared and continued fight against terrorism.

Similarly, America has shown its support for the Central Bank of Lebanon, a trusted partner of the U.S. Pursuant to the consensus of all major sects in the country –  Christian, Sunni, and Shiite alike – to ensure that its financial system is consistent with the laws of the United States, the Bank works closely with the U.S. Treasury Department in preventing the flow of Hezbollah terrorist funds through the Lebanese banking system. Now the Central Bank is turning to the West for assistance to rebuild Lebanon and bring jobs to the Syrian refugees, and the U.S. should step up to the plate.

Earlier this year, the Lebanese government participated in a conference in Brussels on the future of Syria and the region and produced a vision for the stabilization and development of Lebanon. This proposal addresses the massive infrastructure, environmental, power, water and education pressures caused by the Syrian refugee crisis. It consists of a multi-billion dollar program of concessional loans and grants, provided through the World Bank, the international community, and the private sector, to rebuild Lebanon, while prioritizing jobs for Syrian refugees.

Of course in the longer term, nothing will help Lebanon more, and bring more hope to the Syrian refugees, than ending the war. And many Lebanese who spoke with me during my visit expressed optimism that after a lack of U.S. leadership for the past decade, the Trump administration, by its recent military actions, would bring much-needed American power and leadership to force Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad to the negotiating table.

In the meantime, however, there are ways to support win-win solutions for countries like Lebanon. This is a country where we have had reliable partnerships in the past and can do so in the future.

Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and current president of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

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.