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.