Lebanon Daily News Brief 05/03/21

May 3, 2021

Daily News

Two Brothers Suspected in Smuggling Attempt Arrested
After Saudi Arabia cited drug trafficking problems as reasoning for its recent produce ban on Lebanon, Lebanon’s interior minister has stepped up efforts to address the issue. Yesterday Lebanese authorities arrested two brothers who are suspects of the incident that led to Saudi’s ban in the first place. They had allegedly tried to smuggle over 5 million pills of amphetamine Captagon in pomegranate shipments to Saudi Arabia. [Al Arabiya]

NGO Submits Legal Complaint Against BDL Governor
Riad Salameh has been accused of suspicious real estate purchases in France by an NGO called Sherpa, who has submitted a legal complaint. The complaint details Salameh’s foreign investments including real estate property in the millions. Salameh said that he declared these properties in France before becoming central bank governor in 1993. [France 24]

Maritime Border Talks Set to Resume Tomorrow
A mediation team led by US Ambassador John Desrocher is arriving in Beirut today in preparation for maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel that are set to resume on Tuesday. Maritime negotiations began last October but stalled shortly after. Ambassador Desrocher and his team will continue mediation efforts at UNIFIL’s headquarters is Lebanon’s southern city Naqoura. [Reuters]

Opinion & Analysis

European University Institute
Breaking the Cycle: A New American Approach to Lebanon
Nicholas Noe

Noe writes, “A new US-led approach to the country is therefore urgent, if only from the limited perspective of peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Any such re-orientation, however, must first be linked to a marshalling of allies, competitors and enemies for a regional dialogue focused on Iran and Saudi Arabia and an immediate de-escalation or freezing of relebant conflicts, especially between Hezbollah and Israel. With such a vital ‘breathing space,’ a multilateral Lebanon-specific reform policy could then be credibly launched to invest in effective democratic instituion-building, a new socio-political compact in line with the Taif Accord that ended the last civil war and a national defense strategy capable of delivering security for all Lebanese citizens.”

Read more here

JINSA National Security Digest Podcast
A Failing State: What’s Next For Lebanon?

What role do the Lebanese Armed Forces play in enabling Hezbollah’s control? Are the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon effective at cabining Hezbollah in southern Lebanon? These questions and more are discussed in this podcast episode with IDF MG (ret.) Yaacov Ayish, JINSA Senior Vice President for Israeli Affairs and former head of IDF Operations, and Tony Badran, Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Listen here

Diplomatic Courier
Lebanon’s Disabled Community is Dying
Adam Nasser

Nasser writes, “Lebanon’s economic problems, due to decades of mismanagement and corruption, have disproportionately impacted its disabled population. Inflation has driven the value of the Lebanese pound to over 10,000 to the USD, resulting in massive unemployment among disabled people. Today, more than 80 percent of Lebanese with a disability are unemployed, including a large portion of Lebanese youth. Therefore, as the rising cost of living increases, so does the daily burden of the disabled community. To counteract this issue, international donors and NGOs have contributed funds, medical equipment, and educational services…These efforts, as well as assistance that NGOs provide to disabled people, are honorable and necessary. However, they are only a temporary response to a much deeper crisis. Those who receive support from NGO aid programs only cope with living in poverty – they do not escape it. Ultimately, the underlying issue remains unaddressed. Lebanon possesses laws designed to secure the rights of individuals with disabilities that should make up for the difference. This includes the Law on the Rights of Disabled Persons (Law 220/2000), passed by Lebanese legislators in 2000 and designed to safeguard the welfare of disabled citizens. However, the government has not implemented these laws in practice.”

Read more here

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 Week In Lebanon: 4/25/2021

April 25, 2021
Maronite Patriarch Calls for International Conference
New Plan to Rebuild the Port of Beirut
UK Signs MOU with Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces

Maronite Patriarch Calls for International Conference
In an interview with CNBC, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi emphasized his call for an international conference in addition to asking the Security Council for resolutions on arms and militias in Lebanon. The request for a UN-sponsored conference is actively denounced by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. The patriarch further requested a meeting with Hezbollah to discuss Lebanon’s neutrality. [CNBC]


“In recent meetings with political leaders in Lebanon, the Maronite Catholic Patriarch stated that “The issue of Lebanon’s sovereignty over its full territory, put forward at the UN in previous resolutions, should be addressed on a multilateral level.” He called for an international conference and challenged Hezbollah to embrace the concept of neutrality, a worthwhile idea which echoes the dissociation policy of former PM Najib Mikati. An international conference, while a solid idea, should be preceded by the US, France, and other countries, including Russia, the Gulf, and Iran, working in collaboration to formulate a workable plan that has multi-stakeholder buy-in. An international conference would then have a better chance of producing a successful outcome.”
-ATFL President Edward M. Gabriel

New Plan to Rebuild the Port of Beirut
On Tuesday Lebanese contractors proposed a plan to redevelop the Port of Beirut in a project titled, “Amatouri – Helou for the Reconstruction of the Port of Beirut.” It is meant to be a three-year plan that would not cost the state any expense, but be funded by the Port’s income. [The 961]


“Love it. A home-grown solution to rebuild Beirut Port. If this can be done in a transparent and open process, it can set the standard for how the government does business and how public-private partnerships can lead to the revitalization of the capital. There is plenty of talent in Lebanon, with the right environmental and human-centered development values to make this work. Hope a strategy to make this a reality as a reform-based business showcase happens.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

UK Signs MOU with Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces
On Thursday the British Embassy in Lebanon announced the signing of an MOU with Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) which confirmed the UK’s support for the forces including continued cooperation through the British Policing Support Program worth 18.5 million euros. [Naharnet]


“Although the UK has cut its overall assistance to Lebanon, the government will maintain its special relationship with the ISF and its training efforts to build ‘a modern, transparent and accountable police force.’ Given the increasing pressure on human rights and disproportionate responses to protestors by some security services this is welcome news. Lebanon can ill-afford to punish those who demonstrate for reforms while coddling those who have created this mess in the first place.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed 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 week In Lebanon: 4/15/2021

April 15, 2021
Undersecretary David Hale Visits Lebanon
BDL Urges Lebanon’s Government to Curb Subsidies
Foreign Firms Interested in Beirut Port Reconstruction

Undersecretary David Hale Visits Lebanon
This week, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visited Lebanon. He called on Lebanese political leaders to show flexibility and form a government capable of implementing reform. He warned that politicians who block reforms could face punitive actions from the United States. He further added that the US is ready to facilitate maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel. [Associated Press]


“The reason for Undersecretary David Hale’s visit, supported by the new Biden Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, was two-fold: to encourage the leadership of Lebanon to form a government willing to enact necessary reforms that respond to the needs of the Lebanese people; and to encourage a restart of the maritime border negotiations. I’m sure his refrain to the Lebanese politicians was, “Help me, so I can help you.” I’m not sure however what their answer was. The US is ready to help but it needs a partner willing to address the needs of its citizens and work for regional stability. We hope Undersecretary Hale found a partner finally ready to move forward.”
-ATFL President Edward M. Gabriel

BDL Urges Lebanon’s Government to Curb Subsidies
This week the Banque Du Liban urged Lebanon’s caretaker government to cut subsidies in order to protect foreign currency reserves. The bank announced it had been forced to sell dollars to prevent inflation over recent months. [Reuters]


“It’s not enough that the Lebanese people are down; they are being kicked to the curb by the leadership. Not content with disabling the banking system through a Ponzi-like scheme they profited from, the Central Bank wants to end subsidies – the only protection against hunger and humiliation left for the Lebanese. It’s long past time to reform the system, target its impact to those who are needy, and ensure transparency and effectiveness. But why wait until the last moment when this has been obvious since October 17, 2019? The Central Bank is no savior of the people, far from it.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

Foreign Firms Interested in Beirut Port Reconstruction
Several foreign firms are interested in rebuilding the Beirut Port left devastated by the August 4th explosion. German, French, Chinese and Russian firms have expressed interest. [Naharnet] This week Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri spoke with President Vladimir Putin on the phone regarding a number of joint cooperation issues including economic and trade relations. [Naharnet]


“With the Europeans insisting on transparency and reforms before committing to a plan, Saad Hariri is in Russia whipping up interest in the project. To ensure an honest project that benefits the Lebanese people and doesn’t disfigure the blast area, reforms to bidding and contracting regulations, judicial oversight, government concessions, and many more issues must be settled and enacted into enforceable laws. Clean up the debris, make the area safe and secure, and have a plan that respects the environment, the residents, and the needs of the country – not the few who want to feed at the trough.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed 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 Daily News Brief 02/22/23


Bassil Blasts Hariri, Calls For Raising Cabinet Members
The Daily Star

Oil Spill Off Israel Reaches South Lebanese Beaches

LF to Hand UN Petition Demanding International Probe in Port Blast


Being Lost and Not Found in Beirut
Jean AbiNader

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 Week in Lebanon

NOVEMBER 22, 2020
Delay in Government Formation
Independents’ Success in Student Council Elections
UN Special Coordinator’s Response to Government Delay


Continued Delay in Government Formation
President Michel Aoun met with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri last week to discuss Lebanon’s government formation. It was reported that the meeting ended negatively when President Aoun insisted on naming Christian ministers. A former Lebanese PM said that this delay furthers Hezbollah’s wishes to push further government consultations to early next year, after US President-Elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. (Naharnet)


“Hezbollah’s gamble to wait for a Biden administration before assenting to a new government is dangerous and will drive the Lebanese into more poverty, emigration, and joblessness. Lebanon’s economy has days, not weeks, to form an independent government in order to receive necessary international support and avoid economic collapse. A Biden administration has made it clear that any new agreement with Iran will include curbs on “terrorist proxies.” So I’m not sure why Hezbollah waits! If an independent, reform minded government is delayed, a Biden administration in its first week should signal its agreement with France to reprogram some CEDRE and international aid to direct aid to civil society to support universities, election reform, and social safety net programs.”
-ATFL President Edward M. Gabriel

Independents Make an Impression in Student Council Elections
Lebanese American University’s student council seats are usually dominated by the right-wing political party Lebanese Force, but this year, independent students won all the student council seats they ran in: 14 out of 30 seats total. The American University of Beirut also saw strong results for independents at 80 out of 101 seats, and Rafik Hariri University’s independents took four out of nine seats. (Al Jazeera)


“Finding a bright spot in the Lebanese landscape is almost impossible these days but, once again, young people are leading the way. There has been a great deal of concern that the October 17 demonstrators are unable to organize, agree on a central platform, and create a coherent strategy for mobilizing the street. Well, recent university student elections were dominated by the independents. This is a small but reassuring sign that the youth still want to have a say in their future and are working on coalescing around a proactive message to challenge the old guard.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

UN Special Coordinator on Government Delay
UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis participated in an interview with France 24 during which he bemoaned the delay in Lebanon’s government formation. He stressed that he wants to see a government formed in days, not weeks and that the lack of accountability in the government only furthers the public’s mistrust. (France 24)


“It seems that progress is imperceptible in forming a new government. The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, emphasizing the severity of the situation, wants to see results in days not weeks. Data tells the story as poverty and unemployment increase; the coronavirus is rising to dangerous levels; the value of the lira is headed toward 8,500 to the dollar; and some 2,000 medical personnel have left the country. Kubis warned that if the political vacuum continues, Lebanon could face a ‘humanitarian catastrophe and even a collapse.’ Not much to add…the signs are clear.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed 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 Daily News Brief 11/5/20


Lebanon Gets More Time to Meet Audit Demand by Creditors
France 24

Syrian Refugee Sets Himself Ablaze Outside UN Offices in Beirut

Syria’s Assad Says Billions Locked in Troubled Lebanese Banks Behind Economic Crisis
Suleiman Al-Khalidi


Contentious Path for Lebanon’s Forensic Audit
Jean AbiNader

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.

Russian Strides across the Mediterranean Reflect Diverse Interests

For Putin watchers in the Middle East and the US trying to discern a core strategic thrust to Russian policy in the region, the information overload can be quite challenging. From gas pipelines transiting the former Balkans to signing agreements to build nuclear reactors in Africa, Russia is engaging in multidimensional efforts to both increase its leverage in targeted countries and subsequently decrease the value of close relations with the US.

However, its economic offensive is hampered by a lack of financial resources, which means that using credits to promote arms sales, energy infrastructure projects, and local regime support are draining an economy that can hardly meet its domestic needs. Russia’s economic expansiveness lacks the credibility of the Chinese version, which is better financed, appears less likely to be tied to political conditions, and is connected to a core belt and road initiative that is attractive to its clients.

The integration of political and economic objectives is also hampered by the continuing shift in political fortunes of one-time clients. As a recent blog put it, “…Putin clearly disapproves of the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria under pressure from street protests; similarly, the Russian head of state opposes the ousting of his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, by a military coup.” It goes on to point out that Russia lacks leverage to influence either crisis as well as events in Yemen and Palestine.

While Russia has made some statements about the conflict in Libya, its only interventions of note seem to favor General Haftar and his LNA, either by hosting him or blocking unfriendly resolutions in the UN Security Council. Increasingly pulled into disagreements with Iran, Syria, and Turkey over next steps in the Syrian conflict, Russia is floundering a bit as it has been unable to impose its will on any of the parties, despite continuing high level talks.

In Libya, the LNA and Haftar, as reported in Al Monitor, are regarded by Russia as important to resolving the Libyan crisis. Whatever concerns Moscow has regarding his offensive, they are submerged by the need to keep good relations with President Sisi in Egypt, a strong proponent of Haftar, as well as with those local forces that see Haftar as the key to Libya’s future. As the article observes, “What continues to guide its approach to the general is the fear of losing any relevance in the Libyan context if it [Russia] alienates Hifter (sic)…This is the reason why relatively symbolic diplomatic tricks, such as blocking the UNSC statement condemning Hifter, become an important message to the general. Russia sees no benefit in openly taking sides in Tripoli, but it will be ready to step in diplomatically to not allow the LNA’s defeat because it would ruin the East-West zero-sum confrontation.”

This perception, while opportunistic, carries risks that can upset Russia’s continued expansion of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean where it is confronting another wary and troubling possible partner, Turkey. The most immediate contentions focus on conflict zones in the west and east of the country. Although there seemed to be an agreement between the two to establish a demilitarized zone around Idlib in exchange for Russian influence in defanging the YPG Kurdish militia, Russia expected Turkey to have greater control over attacks by the HTS Islamic militants who were part of al-Qaeda; while Turkey wanted Moscow to push the YPG out of the remaining area in Aleppo province. Neither has happened.

These problems are further exacerbated by the Syrian regime’s opposition to agree on a joint constitutional committee with the opposition that would garner international support for some sort of forward movement by re-legitimizing the Assad regime’s place, albeit temporarily, in negotiations on the country’s future.

While Russia continues to discover how much success is possible in crafting a region-wide strategy, the US tries to maintain some remnants of skin in the game. In the most recent meeting between a senior US official, in this case Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and President Putin, “Pompeo said that he and Putin agreed on ways to move ahead with a long-delayed Syrian-led committee that will rewrite the constitution in hopes of a political end to the conflict.” Pompeo has been critical of Russia’s ambitions in the region and told reporters in advance of the meeting that “It’s not about ‘moving on.’ It’s about trying to find solutions, compromises, places where there are overlapping interests.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Secretary.

Talking about Lebanon: Electricity Plan Passed by Cabinet – On to Parliament; Russia Plays Multiple

The biggest political news this past week was the approval by the council of ministers of a plan to restructure the electricity sector. The plan has a number of moving parts, from pricing to infrastructure and priorities for phasing in government-approved sources and phasing out the generator cabal who have been supplying power in place of the government.

It also includes the restructuring of the state power company with the aim of eliminating its more than $2 billion annual subsidy for fuel and maintenance. In addition to the eventual return of 24/7 power to all of Lebanon, the plan also meets one of the reform conditions of the CEDRE donors. Despite the enthusiastic reports, some were skeptical that the reform will actually be implemented on time and in the scope required, noting that both sides need a win at this point – the Lebanese government to show that it can undertake reforms, and the lenders, led by the World Bank, who are anxious to check a box that shows progress.

Several analysts expressed reservations about additional reforms and changes to the current system of distributing benefits by political elites noting, for example, “However, deeper reforms, able to address the extreme levels of inequality that Lebanon is experiencing or the rampant corruption of its institutions, are unlikely. The country’s political and economic elites haven’t changed, nor have their interests.”

Last minute concerns expressed by the Free Patriotic Movement to ensure that the tendering process would be transparent and not sidetracked by red tape and diversionary tactics were accommodated in the final draft. Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab noted that a ministerial panel has been tasked with following up on the implementation of the plan in order to prevent any obstruction. “The electricity plan is an achievement for all political parties,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced at a press conference after the session.

“The electricity plan is an achievement for Lebanon and no one will obstruct it,” Hariri added, pointing out that the Public Procurement Management Administration and a technical panel from the Energy Ministry will be in charge of the tendering process. The plan still needs to be approved by parliament. A Naharnet article pointed out that “A dated electricity grid, rampant corruption, and lack of reform has left power supply lagging way behind rising demand since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. According to the McKinsey & Company consulting firm, the quality of Lebanon’s electricity supply in 2017-2018 was the fourth worst in the world after Haiti, Nigeria, and Yemen.”

Russia’s regional plans are the subject of much speculation as all of the region’s leadership has managed to visit President Putin in the last year, including newly-minted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who came right before the election. It is remarkable that Putin has managed to virtually erase America’s once-dominant role in the region while avoiding key issues such as the future of Hezbollah and Trump’s order recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

By visiting Russia a scant five days before the elections, Netanyahu accomplished three goals: demonstrating to the Russian-Jewish population in Israel his close ties with Putin; being able to carry his anti-Iran message to Putin without obvious controversy; and burnishing his credentials as someone with significant ties to both Russia and the US. How this translates into Russia’s policies in Syria, Turkey, and Iran have yet to be clearly demonstrated, but for now the Russian bear’s shadow has definitely dimmed the US status in the region.

On the other hand, the US continues to take a hardline on Hezbollah that may, in fact, be counterproductive. On his trip to Lebanon and in Congressional testimony following his trip, Secretary of State Pompeo clearly stated the US view that Hezbollah was a threat to Lebanon as well as to America’s ally Israel. By stating that Lebanon not reining in Hezbollah could lead to onerous consequences, he raised concerns that were a central issue for the delegation of Lebanese cabinet officials and parliamentarians who visited Washington last week.

Although the delegation came away with a perception that the US is aware of the limitations faced by the government in confronting Hezbollah, there were no assurances that “unintended consequences” might arise from provocations in the south of Lebanon. The threat of sanctions on “particular individuals,” organizations, and institutions in Lebanon remain a possibility due to the wide-ranging definitions in the “Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act,” which, critics argue, could apply to Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement because of their political collaboration with Hezbollah. In this context, it could undermine support for the US among important groups in Lebanon who currently share US values and are sanguine about having to live with the reality of Hezbollah’s role.

Corruption continues to be in the news, most recently in an article in Transparency International, which commented that “According to the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which measures public sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world, Lebanon scores a pitiful 28 out of 100 for the sixth consecutive year. This is well below the regional average of 39 out of 100 for the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region. In addition, according to the 2016 Global Corruption Barometer, which surveyed more than 10,000 citizens in nine countries and territories in the MENA region, 92 per cent of Lebanese citizens think corruption has increased in their country.”

While the survey was conducted before the elections this past May, there is still little regard for the willingness of the country’s elites to seriously engage corruption at all levels. “More than three-quarters of Lebanese respondents think the government is doing a poor job in fighting corruption. Unfortunately, despite this, only about half of citizens that think ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.”

Given the renewed emphasis in combating corruption through a series of new laws, draft laws, and setting up a national commission to track, monitor, and shed light on incidents of corruption, the Lebanese government has set a path for taking concrete actions in the right direction. What is needed is political will and less obfuscation.

What’s going on in Lebanon besides CEDRE Reforms and Syrian Refugees?

The more than 200 agenda items for the first three meetings of the Council of Ministers demonstrate that business as usual is just not going to suffice. In addition to the reforms and regulations related to qualifying for the CEDRE loans, grants, and guarantees, there were quite a few internal administrative items. These covered a variety of issues, from travel abroad to subsidies and protection for consumer-related concerns that ranged from healthcare to certain agricultural products.

The devolved powers that accrued to the council of ministers under the Taif Agreement’s recalibration of the country’s power-sharing make it critical that there be a robust bureaucracy in place with authority to implement approved policies. However, Lebanon’s culture of micromanagement to ensure the appropriate allocation of government resources (spoils, would be more accurate) means continued bottlenecks until a more neutral and fact-based decision-making process is adopted.

Most recently, the LAF received another shipment of equipment from the US. This time it was an $11 million package of six drones, which follows up an earlier shipment this year of $16 million worth of laser-guided smart missiles. This continuation of the strong ties between the US and Lebanon is facing pressure from Russia, which is lobbying Lebanon to have a higher profile in their bilateral military and economic affairs.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Zasypkin recently spoke at LAU and mentioned that “his country was interested in building new power plants in Lebanon,” and offered “his country’s readiness to help Lebanon in solving the electricity crisis through building modern power stations.” His statement comes amid ongoing Lebanese government meetings with the Prime Minister to discuss how to best solve the energy crisis. There are several layers of challenges: the regulatory environment, clarity about fees and charges, the need for transparent bidding processes, timeframe and financing of infrastructure, and how to deal with the current producers, either off-shore barges or the unlicensed generator operators. It is anticipated that the relevant parliamentary committees will receive a plan for approval by the end of April.

While he was in Moscow, President Michel Aoun discussed his support for Russia’s resettlement initiative for the return of Syrian refugees. The plan is floundering at present due to suspicions that Russia wants to establish mechanisms that trade reconstruction dollars from the West for incremental resettlement of Syrian refugees in areas controlled and dictated by the Assad regime. Despite Russian claims that it will engage with the international community in the effort, so far there has been little revealed of how it would actually work, and especially since the Syrian regime has not given its blessing to the initiative.

A group of Lebanese government officials and parliamentarians are on their way to the US to participate in the annual World Bank/IMF meetings. The delegation will also meet with US government officials and attend the American Task Force for Lebanon Gala, which is honoring four prominent Lebanese-Americans: the Hon. Alex M. Azar II, US Secretary of Health and Human Services; The Hon. Darin LaHood, Representative from Illinois; Peter Rahal, CEO and co-founder of RXBAR; and David Yazbek, noted writer, composer, and Broadway producer.

Among the visiting Lebanese dignitaries is H.E. Yassine Jaber, head of Parliament’s committee on Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. He noted in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the delegation would take the opportunity to hold meetings with US officials “to explain the Lebanese situation and review regional developments…” He also “stressed that Washington supported the Lebanese army and institutions, pointing out that the country needed this material and moral support in light of the current economic crisis and the difficulties and challenges it faces at all levels.”

This concern with challenges faced by Lebanon brings up the issue of the US government’s position on Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and how the delegation might respond if the issue is raised. In an attempt to shore up the distinction between Amal as a political party and Hezbollah, Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, recently met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. Sistani is regarded as a Shiite leader who promoted cooperation and moderation among communities in Iraq and is unsettled by Iran’s interference in the country.

According to the news report, Sistani told Berri, “It’s important for everyone to work on establishing values of peaceful coexistence based on protection of rights and mutual respect between the different religious and ethnic components in our region, to provide security, stability, progress and prosperity for its peoples.”

It seems Berri, during his visit to Iraq, wanted to send the message that his Amal Movement is different from Hezbollah, and gain Sistani’s support against any possible sanctions. How this will play out among US officials is unknown although the US has cooperated with Sistani in Iraq in the past in seeking to defuse tensions with the Sunni and Kurdish communities.

Options for Refugee Return Still Unclear for Both Lebanon and NGOs

President Michel Aoun has been quite outspoken regarding Syrian refugees: there is no future for them in Lebanon. President Aoun and a majority of the country’s leadership say that the Syrian refugees should return to Syria without waiting for an overarching political settlement that satisfies the UN. As he noted this past week in meeting with the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, “We worry about the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. The international community is postponing their return to an unknown timing,” said Aoun. “Lebanon’s infrastructure including electricity, water, hospitals, and schools have been tremendously impacted by this crisis,” repeating his message to the Brussels III donors conference.

“We must work seriously to take refugees back to safe zones in Syria,” he said. The president also called on those countries that have supported factions in Syria’s civil war, which has killed over 300,000 people, to do more to financially support the refugees created by the conflict. “If the countries involved allocate 10 percent of the cost of the Syrian war to resolve the refugee issue, it would help resolve their humanitarian crisis and spare the world more crises,” Aoun said.

But for the UNHCR, repatriation is not an immediate alternative. Its refugee policy statement points out that “The decision to phase out UNHCR presence in countries of origin, however, should not be based exclusively on the circumstances of the returnee population. The political and social stability of the country should also be taken into account. UNHCR has a legitimate concern with preventing refugee outflows or internal displacement. This gives it an interest in contributing to the creation of general conditions of political and social stability and may warrant maintaining a country presence beyond the phase out of its reintegration activities.”

Obviously, these conditions are a remote possibility at this time, and, in fact, may not be a priority for the Assad regime at all. The lack of a viable, reliable, and credible partner in Syria precludes any large-scale resettlement efforts through the UN apparatus. The article also points out another stumbling point: “In reality, most host governments want UNHCR to foot the bill and do the work of refugee protection, while the host government maintains control over refugee affairs.”

An article in Refugees Deeply adds, “Return is increasingly elusive. The realities of protracted crises, bureaucratic organizations, mission creep, donor preferences, and genuine ongoing humanitarian need mean international organizations struggle to determine when and how to hand over activities to national authorities and development actors.”

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on a recent visit to Lebanon said “After eight years of this terrible war, the impact on Lebanon is very heavy and this cannot be taken for granted by the international community. Return is a decision by the people. Those who return, who make that decision, must be supported – not only to return, but also to restart their lives.”

According to Elouise Hobbs, working for CAFOD, the international aid agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, refugees yearn to return home. “When there is a conflict that has been going on as long as this, people want to return home. They want to go back to what they know,” she said, but the ongoing fighting and widespread destruction are deterring them. “The conflict in Syria, although it seems it is coming to an end, it hasn’t officially ended yet. There is no political settlement in place, or an end to the war in place. Until there is an end to the war, there can be no guarantee of safety to those who return,” Hobbs said.

In his monthly column on the MENA region, Jon Alterman of CSIS brought up the issue of the impact of the refugees on the region. “For Assad, the refugees’ displacement is a relief. He does not need to provide them with food, services, or jobs, and their absence frees up housing for allies who have lost their own. The refugees’ absence also helps ensure that those most likely to be hostile to him are kept at arm’s length, helping guarantee that currently pro-regime areas are heavily pro-regime and allowing him to focus security attention on the frontiers that he is seeking to reincorporate.”

Alterman points out that Assad will survive and continue to constrain the political space inside Syria. At this time, it means he will use the refugees as pawns to secure reconstruction funds while continuing to promote instability in Jordan and Lebanon by protracting resettlement.

“While Syrians in Lebanon have long served as low-wage workers, the current wave of refugees puts even greater pressures on the Lebanese economy than in Jordan. With something like one in four people inside Lebanon’s borders a displaced Syrian, they strain the already-fragile Lebanese system to its breaking point. Lebanon’s volatile politics are aflame over Syria, especially as fighting dies down. Even in the absence of a settlement, many Lebanese are arguing that the conflict is over and it is time for the Syrians to go home—even when there is often no home to go back to, and despite the fact that the Syrian government doesn’t want many to return. International humanitarian law bars the forced return of refugees, but that seems of little consequence in a country that feels refugees have exposed it to existential threats.”

In his ominous conclusion, Alterman writes, “But for Western governments, the more immediate and serious challenges are likely to come from the freer political environments in Jordan and Lebanon, as governments become increasingly desperate to do more with less. As the war fades away, Western assistance will fade too, and yet large refugee problems will endure. Assad may get his assistance yet, not because any government wants to save Assad. Instead, it will be to persuade Assad to take Syria’s citizens back, in order to save Syria’s neighbors.”

A troubling, unstable, and insecure reality indeed.