How to Prevent Lebanon from Experiencing a “Lost Generation”

Today, over one million children are deprived of a quality education in Lebanon. The American Task Force on Lebanon convened a group of education leaders from public and private schools as well as experts from leading international organizations to discuss ongoing challenges and potential solutions.

ATFL’s new policy paper, “How to Prevent Lebanon from Experiencing a ‘Lost Generation,’” reflects a group consensus on current challenges and steps that the Lebanese government and international actors can take to rebuild the education sector in Lebanon.

 

Read the Policy paper here

Watch The Webinar Here

 

 

More Than a Record-Breaker: A Hero’s Journey

Immediately upon meeting Michael Haddad in person, you will notice his tremendous strength of willpower and determination. At the age of six, he was subject to a spinal cord injury from a Jet Ski accident, which left three-fourths of his body paralyzed from the chest down. Today, defying all odds, he walks by carrying his body one-step at a time – using 26 pound braces initially designed to only hold him upright for limited periods of time. His physical support system alone, however, does not fully encapsulate his remarkability. “Through his perseverance, determination, and belief in science, Michael was able to defy his paralysis and walk upright by adopting a unique walking pattern, similar to a Swing Through Gait pattern (SWG) using the support of an orthotic exoskeleton.” Only through his awe-inspiring spirit and passion has Michael been able to achieve miraculous accomplishments, of which he has many.

He has broken three world records through his walking and climbing, representing his beloved Lebanon along the way. On March 8, 2015 Michael achieved his third world record by climbing the Black Summit or Al Qornet El Sawda – the highest point not only in Lebanon but in the entire Levant – at 10,131 feet above sea level under the training and supervision of the Lebanese Army Rangers Regiment. He also carried himself for twelve miles, amounting to 60,000 steps, on a journey that took him through the mountains of Lebanon, where he persevered against all manners of natural obstacles, including sub-zero temperatures. Commemorating World Oceans Day in 2014, Michael also climbed the iconic Raouche Pigeon rocks and hoisted himself up 131 feet, relying only on his upper body to do so.

Since 2019, Michael has been recognized as a Goodwill Ambassador for Climate Action by the UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States. Already having dedicated his platform to raise awareness on the impact of deforestation, environmental destruction, and climate change, Michael went above and beyond his own accomplishments by completing his Arctic Walk for Climate Resilience and Food Security, in June of last year, during which he carried seed samples from twelve Arab countries and a book by Pope Francis to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault—the world’s largest backup facility for seeds. He trained with the UK Rangers Regiment in preparation for this Arctic Walk and was featured in the media, globally.

For many, Michael Haddad’s athletic accomplishments alone would be inspiring. What makes him more than an athlete and role model, however, is his relentless commitment to his goodwill and humanity; going beyond the limits by pushing his own personal boundaries, endurance, and sense of responsibility and positivity. A research team representing the Lebanese American University (LAU), American University of Beirut (AUB), Phoenix Energy, Order of Physical Therapists of Lebanon and Orthotics Professionals and Engineers collaborated to develop an exoskeleton capable of enhancing the life of people suffering from spinal cord injuries. Michael’s participation in this cutting-edge research, also in collaboration with a special medical team from LAU and AUB and other international bodies, has not only improved his own access and physical mobility, but has also brought hope to communities challenged by disabilities and the lack of universal accessibility.

He remains committed to improving accessibility conditions on behalf of the disabled community, as demonstrated by his focus on the mobility needs in the Karantina neighborhood following the August 4th Port of Beirut explosion. As an activist abroad and at home, Michael has be recognized by the UN, multiple universities, and NGOs in many locations for his exceptional accomplishments.

Describing Michael, Thomas Abraham says, “At a very young age, most children are taught to believe in the impossible. Michael Haddad is God’s instrument of showcasing that the impossible is possible, and Michael’s key to achieving the impossible is he believes in the supreme being. Michael embodies the holistic presence of mind that, with his determination, willpower, and commitment to reach the impossible, he has accomplished the same based on his faith in the Almighty. Michael, indeed, is a walking miracle that cannot be defined without looking into his faith in the divine being who has used Michael as an instrument of trust that embodies the pure essence of love.”

It has not been a simple transition, but as an experienced entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and activist, Michael Haddad is able to do many things, having built an effective platform for himself to inspire change. His actions and achievements speak louder and bolder than his words. He is so much more than a paraplegic athlete and role model; he is a hero.

To read his complete story, visit www.michaelhaddad.org .

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. The ATFL-sponsored Congressional Delegation met with Michael Haddad in November of 2021. Featured in the image above (from right): Congressman Darin LaHood, Michael Haddad, Congressman Darrell Issa, and Ambassador Ed Gabriel, Ret. 

Syria and Lebanon – Paying the Price of Neglect

Syria and Lebanon – Paying the Price of Neglect

How much more can the Syrian people be forced to endure? With plunging rates of human development in education, health, basic welfare, and other services, not to mention the continued denial of human rights, the abandonment of local governance to the Assad regime, the fragmentation of the country among warring factions, and the absence of any realistic alternatives to a continued stalemate among them, Syria has been pushed beyond repair. It seems that nether Russia nor Iran have a plan other than maintaining the status quo – without the resources or financial capabilities to undertake the widespread investments necessary for survival and reconstruction of the country.

As recently reported, “Even before the earthquakes that devastated northwestern Syria in February, the UN had said that 14.6 million Syrians were in need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.9 million people internally displaced and more than 5.4 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands also sought asylum in Germany and other parts of the European Union, as well as further afield.” Not only has Syria wound up with a devastated economy, but the professional class outside of the capital, Damascus, has largely dissipated as a force for development.

You may wonder, then, why our attention is increasingly focused on Syria despite the many unresolved challenges in Lebanon. Their futures are entwined, as their histories have been. After adding together Hezbollah’s Syrian adventures, the role of Iran in Iraq, and the political links to Lebanon, it is apparent that each can play a role in the continued erosion or emerging successes of the other. Syria is Lebanon’s largest market. Many families share roots that go back hundreds of years. Their cultures are so similar that the food, music, and performing arts all blend into each other.

A decade ago, there were optimistic forecasts of Tripoli and Aleppo twining to facilitate the reconstruction of Syria, in the post-war aftermath. Well, Syria is still divided and Lebanon is now ruined. So much for predictions. Tripoli became the center of poverty in Lebanon – if not, in the entire coastal Mediterranean region – and Aleppo was destroyed twice by ISIS, further ruined by the anti-ISIS campaigns of the government. Today, what has become apparent in both countries is that the central governments are notoriously unreliable and unable to meet the needs of the country from basic infrastructure to telecommunications and energy.

Some Sunshine?

Local initiatives in both countries – not considering the Levantine Energy packages bringing power from Jordan and Egypt – are possible options for creating manageable paths forward for communities and even regions. Local community empowerment under various labels relieves the governments of providing a range of services to citizens at the local level. Utilizing the human resources that were once abundant in both countries deals both with the brain drain issue and magnifies what benefits can accrue from utilizing local talents and energies so that more products can be created for export, value can be added to existing products, and demand can be increased for local services including production of exports.

Various studies conducted pre- and post-pandemic, have spelled out the capacity and areas of opportunity for economies to reduce their import costs and create new streams of income.

The reason why this analysis aims to look beyond Lebanon is that the Syrian markets are right next door. Bringing together the qualities of the two markets as well as the entrepreneurial talents that both have to offer create synergies enabling communities in Syria and Lebanon to overcome their stigmas of poverty and regression. As far as Lebanon is concerned, “The business community is confident – that there are enough unemployed individuals with relevant skills to meet labor demand in these sectors. These initiatives could entice qualified youth to forego emigration, create high-quality private sector jobs, produce additional sophisticated products, increase economic output, reduce demand for public sector jobs, and efficiently utilize savings in the absence of a functioning banking sector.”

Neither country needs to rely on the central governments except for facilitations. As it stands today, in Lebanon, “The overvalued exchange rate and relatively high labor costs contributed to reducing the competitiveness of locally manufactured products in foreign and local markets before 2020. Compounding this, the monopolized market structure lowered entry incentives in key manufacturing sectors. As a result, from 2011 to 2019, value added in manufacturing dropped by 25% to $3.1 billion, and by another 27% from 2019 to 2021.” On the local level, these non-competitive barriers can be reduced significantly, and the pairing of Syrian and Lebanese labor and brainpower can bring about a range of successes.

This alternative serves both countries, reduces tensions, promotes stability, and requires few actions by a central government whether they be autocrats or kleptocrats. Putting power and initiative back in the hands of local communities engenders the stability desperately needed in both countries.

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. 

Will Syria Push Lebanon Off the Cliff?

At a January 29 press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was clear: “We don’t support normalization.” That theme of US foreign policy has been adamant since the start of the Syrian civil war, during which time over half of the pre-war Syrian population has been killed or displaced. While the Lebanese host communities have shared in the suffering of the refugees as their economy has imploded, the EU Council on Foreign Relations reports that, “The Lebanese financial crisis of the last few years has seen between one-third and one-half of all direct UN cash aid in the country swallowed up by Lebanese banks, resulting in refugees and others in need missing out on much-needed international assistance.”

It is no surprise that while the elites in both countries profit from the suffering of the people, according to the report, “The desire to leave is confirmed by, for example, a recent poll that revealed at least 69 per cent of Syrian refugee respondents are planning to leave Lebanon for a third country – a 42 per cent surge in two years.”

This statistic reflects both their forced displacement and the conditions that refugees increasingly encounter in host countries. For example, “In Lebanon, over 80 per cent of Syrian refugees have no legal residency documentation, which is essential to access employment, education, and basic services, and to exercise freedom of movement.” Not unlike the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this reflects more of the impact of the vagaries of the local power-sharing agreement as well as the blatant hostility towards refugees in general.

In mid-January, The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned that 90 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, while 60 per cent of Syrians suffer from food insecurity. This is compounded by the lack of medical and education facilities that leads some families to seek relief as refugees elsewhere, either through perilous relation or moving to other host communities spreading stress elsewhere.

The overwhelming pressures to support their families and be employed has eroded the family-centered values of Syrian society, leaving the Assad regime with a war-torn country with large numbers of phantom supporters. Children are forced to work, often in informal job sectors, or forced into early marriage to qualify for certain benefits and support. This has spilled over into Lebanon as the economic hardships for both peoples deepen.

Even the recent traumas associated with the earthquakes have been exploited by the regime to its benefit, holding hostage international access to humanitarian relief, and diverting supplies to regime supporters. House Foreign Affairs Chairman McCaul, rejected the notion of any degree of normalization with the Assad regime to facilitate support for the earthquake victims. The Syrian government was unable to provide assurances that relief supplies would reach those in need and the areas of instability without government interference. McCaul reiterated congressional opposition to any type of normalization that would end up supporting the regime.

Arab countries, on the other hand, are rushing to Syria to re-establish relations while ignoring the inhumane and barbarous actions of the Assad regime over the past 13 years. While the US and the West still hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, many of the Arabs have developed amnesia about the Assad regime’s annihilation of the Syrian people. As our colleague Adnan Nassar reports, this has implications for Lebanon’s future too, as Syria still wields leverage on Lebanon; works to undermine the security of its common borders through large-scale smuggling; and contributes to the financial and political instability of the country.

Not only neighboring Arab countries, but also Iran via their militias and military, which along with Hezbollah and Russia, are responsible for the survival of the Syrian state under the Assad regime, have seized the opportunity of earthquake relief to deepen their footprints into and embrace of normalization with Syria. This further undermines the Lebanese government’s ability to wield sovereignty over its own country and mitigate instability.

Once again, Lebanon faces a dilemma. On the one hand, there are extensive cultural and familial ties with the Syrian people. On the other, Assad’s Syria has shown time and again that it has no interest in a neighbor that holds values unacceptable to a totalitarian regime. The close ties in banking and commerce, trade and finance which have always served their mutual interest – that is, before the complete meltdown of Lebanon’s banking and financial service sector – are a millstone, today. These developments, however bleak they may be, must not be ignored. Time for Lebanon to wake up to the reality of the other 800 pound gorilla in the region.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article 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.

ATFL Mourns the Loss of Senator James Abourezk, 1931-2023.

ATFL mourns the loss of Senator James Abourezk, the first Arab American Senator from the state of South Dakota and a prominent American of Lebanese descent. As a former high-ranking Senator, attorney, and veteran, he was a man who was driven by his commitment to his values – even when they were not shared by others. As Ralph Nader describes, “It was not that he was so honest, so down to earth, or so engaging with friend and foe alike. Rather, it was his willingness to be a minority of one pressing into visibility the plight of the forgotten, the oppressed and the excluded.”

Representing the State of South Dakota in the US Senate from 1973 to 1979 and in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1973, Senator Abourezk was well known for his advocacy on behalf of Native Americans and is attributed to the establishment of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which laid the foundation for laws such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. He also founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and fostered a legacy that was critical of anti-Arab and Islamophobic discrimination.

ATFL President Ed Gabriel and Senator Abourezk became fast friends when they first met in 1977, meeting on issues concerning American Indians. Gabriel had just become Executive Director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal organization dedicated to the sovereignty of tribal resources, and Abourezk had just become Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. “We immediately bonded as close friends the day we met,” Gabriel recalled. “Two American kids from rural America, sons of Lebanese immigrants, fighting to protect the sovereignty and self-determination of Indian tribes. Jim’s fight for what was right will never be forgotten.”

Senator Abourezk was born in 1931 to two Lebanese immigrants who settled in the Great Plains around the turn of the century, and was raised on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota. He passed away in Sioux Falls at the age of 92.

ATFL offers its solemn condolences to the family and friends of Senator Abourezk, and to the individuals and communities who benefited from the Senator’s tireless advocacy on their behalf.

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.

Restarting Lebanon’s Reconstruction

The US and International partners invested in the Lebanon file are frequently frustrated by two entwined challenges: where to begin with corruption and how to deal with Hezbollah. Perhaps part of the difficulty is trying to find separate solutions for these problems. We have the IMF package of reforms, which can’t pass through Parliament without the Speaker’s active blessing, on the one hand, and we have the lack of a way forward regarding Hezbollah without a functioning government to be a party to an agreement.

So it comes back to the same reality. As stated by a candidate for President, recently in the US, “Hezbollah took advantage of the corruption in Lebanon to build themselves into a political and military force.” So let’s reframe the approach and think of solutions that will work on both the issue of government reform and Hezbollah’s militarism simultaneously. Any clear analyst will then lay the challenge at­­­ Parliament’s leadership given their pivotal role, but then again, reality intervenes and reminds us that it was the agreement with the FPM that solidified Hezbollah’s legitimacy in the Lebanese government. So where do we look for solutions?

A friend in Lebanon with close ties to civil society points to these possible signposts. The Constitution as amended by the Taif Agreement has most of the steps required to reset the governing formula: two houses of Parliament, with open elections for the lower house and a sectarian upper house; decentralization of power between a centralized government with extensive, effective decentralization to the municipalities; an independent judiciary with appointments recommended to the president by an impartial board; appointments to merit-based senior civil service posts; and appointments to ministers who meet relevant professional criteria including knowledge and expertise in the ministry’s particular functions. He recommends that Lebanon start by implementing Taif and the constitution. No debate needed. They are already law.

A major conundrum is incentivizing the political leadership to take a radically different approach to governance which depends on the willingness of the international community to be proactive with its sticks (sanctions, etc.) and carrots. Civil society has the strength to pressure Parliament. The upcoming May Municipal elections are a start. Again, Parliament has passed most of the legislation needed to deal with corruption, from a whistle-blower protection law to lifting banking secrecy for investigations and a process for monitoring and auditing government spending. All of the tools are actually there, ready for an empowered Parliament. So why are they not employed?

The answer appears obvious. Iran is the catalyst for the erosion of democracy in Lebanon. Once it joined the great game through the penetration of God’s party (Hezb’ Allah) by the IRGC in the 80s, Hezbollah has become a convenient pawn in Iran’s power projection in the wider region. Strengthening its military capabilities fighting Israel and proving to be an extremely capable armed force in Syria – even accused of extending its reach into Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Yemen.

So is it possible, the argument goes, for the international community to close ranks and negotiate with Iran on its dramatically reducing its support for malign actors, rather than its nuclear development– something that does not threaten the national pride of the Iranian government? These friends of Lebanon should insist on two conditions: closing the borders to smuggling and ending armed provocations. The LAF on numerous occasions has identified the transit points for drugs and how they can be interdicted. Successful negotiating with Iran can remove the bulk of Hezbollah’s financial support, while also cutting out smuggling and drug trafficking internationally. Working with countries in Africa and Latin America, the drug trade can be halted and millions of dollars in illicit money can be erased from Hezbollah’s treasury.

Over time, this can also set a pattern for resolving issues with Iraq and Syria, even if the Assad regime prefers coercion rather than compromise. Assad relies on Russia and Iran for his survival, so all regional actors will likely remain involved, including Turkey. Its presence in Syria along its Southeastern border along with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees make Ankara a significant stakeholder in changing regional dynamics.

In this scenario of bypassing Hezbollah and negotiating with Iran, ratcheting up effective counter-smuggling on Lebanon’s borders, the seeds can be planted for more intense negotiations for repatriation of Syrian refugees to safe zones that can overlap with investment parks that rebuild refugees’ lives and not Assad’s brutal regime, it is proposed.

In the meantime, emphasizing decentralization can have several blessings if it’s navigated properly. New political leadership may emerge to challenge the current narrative of clientelism in Parliament. Services can be restored as local co-ops form to provide energy, water, waste treatment, and health services. The tax base of Lebanon will be based on actual, factual, and measurable monies, and employment will spread broadly through the population to include youth, women, and those who need upskilling.

This scenario is not a fantasy. It is an achievable reality. The task as defined requires a rethink of the US and international policy vis-a-vis Iran, and may set guidelines for dealing with Russia once the destructive encounter with Ukraine has ended. It is within the grasp of all actors. The major powers get satisfaction and Lebanon as well as the region get another chance at peace and prosperity.

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.