Hariri Calls on Parliament to Implement CEDRE Related Reforms during Ministerial Statement Debate

In last week’s debate running up to the adoption of the ministerial statement, the surreal quality of Lebanon’s political culture again took center stage. There were charges and countercharges regarding the respective roles of former (assassinated) president Bashir Gemayel and Hezbollah in Lebanese affairs, while some members claimed that the CEDRE projects are a plot to keep Syrians in Lebanon by providing employment for them. This, of course, conveniently overlooked the fact that for 20 plus years, some half million Syrians in Lebanon have worked in agricultural and construction jobs that many Lebanese shun.

Other anomalies peppered the debate such as the role of pro-Syrian minister Saled al-Gharib, responsible for the refugee portfolio, who “has vowed to do whatever it takes to push Syrian refugees back into their country,” according to The Arab Weekly. Members accepted a watered-down reference to a controlled and safe return for the refugees, which placed an emphasis on the Russia plan for repatriation and reconstruction, largely a smoke and mirrors proposition at this point. Another complicating rumor that diverted attention was that the Syrian regime had issued a “terrorist list” that included Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Undeterred, Prime Minister Hariri began the debate with a comprehensive and strong statement that challenged those who put narrow interests above what is good for Lebanon. In some of the strongest passages, referring to proposed reforms, he said:

Here I want to ask. Who is against a modern law for public tenders? Who is against the development of customs, the facilitation of the business environment that attracts investments from abroad? Who is against the computerization of all state administrations to reduce squander and corruption and facilitate the lives of citizens? Who is against the restructuring of the public sector? Who among you is against the reduction of budget deficit? And most importantly, who among you believes that the infrastructure in our country does not need any rehabilitation or development?

It is important for me today to emphasize that the country has a real opportunity, and we have a clear program that needs a workshop in which everyone participates. Whether we like it or not, this is our country, and we are all partners in the good and bad days. We have a clear program, and we have responsibilities in the government and parliament to turn words into actions.

In this regard, he was joined by two of Lebanon’s national leaders in emphasizing the importance of fighting corruption. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech, noting “the real battle today is against financial corruption and administrative waste,” and stressing that Hezbollah is adamant on fighting this battle, which as he said, “started in the Parliament sessions devoted to discussing the ministerial statement and giving confidence to the government.” Referring to the $ 11 billion dossiers, Nasrallah vowed to “pursue it till the end,” according to Al Masdar News.

Samir Geagea took a similar tone in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat noting that “The priority at the moment, however, must be the economy. Statements about combating corruption must be translated into practical steps,” he said. He emphasized the importance of first approving the state budget, “which he described as a ‘leaky bowl’ that has been spilling its contents for 30 years.” Geagea concluded that “As long as the leaks remain, the squandering of funds will continue. We must therefore, plug this hole if we are serious about tackling the budget.”

So the work begins. Various committees and working groups have assignments related to implementing or passing reform legislation called for under the CEDRE program. In a meeting this week, Hariri presided over a meeting with the Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil, the World Bank Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha, the President of the Council for Development and Reconstruction Nabil Jisr, Hariri’s Advisor Nadim Munla, and representatives of Arab, European, and international financial institutions. Discussions focused on the necessary steps to accelerate the implementation of the CEDRE conference decisions, in particular, ensuring that projects are started on a timely basis reflecting the new laws passed by the government and conforming to international standards.

Iran, Russia, and Syria Anxious to Reap Their Rewards, as Hezbollah Faces New Choices

The announcement of the US withdrawal from Syria, albeit still lacking details, has, as mentioned previously, raised the specter of a country divided among the winners: Syria, Iran, Russia, and even Turkey, anxious to protect its flanks from the Kurds. While there is no agreement on how Syria’s massive reconstruction, estimated in excess of $400 billion, will be funded, it will be hard for the GCC to bear part of the burden, as hinted by the Trump administration, if Iran is seen to benefit from its presence in Syria.

That hasn’t prevented deals from being struck. Russia has already inked contracts for major infrastructure projects around Tartus naval port and the Khomeini Air Base it uses; and is rumored to be ready to build a nuclear power plant. It has also signed a 20-year contract with the Ministry of Energy and Water in Lebanon to rebuild and operate a 90 year old oil storage facility in Tripoli to upgrade and triple its capacity from 450,000 to 1.5 million metric tons.

Not to be late to the trough, reports from several sources indicate that Tehran has recently signed agreements in banking cooperation, the repair of power stations, a new power plant in Latakia, and long-term economic agreements in industry, trade, and agriculture. Memorandums of understanding were also signed to cover railways, investment, education, housing, public works, and other fields.

They were signed during a visit to Damascus by Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who noted that they contained legal and administrative facilities to benefit “Iranian companies wishing to invest in Syria that contribute effectively to reconstruction.”

“The new agreements come against the backdrop of fresh US sanctions against Iran, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and several Syrian business people and companies are already on US and European blacklists.” These sanctions will affect access to equipment, finances, international funding and exports from Syria. In addition, the inevitable role of Syrian business oligarchs anxious for rewards for supporting President Assad may cause issues after an initial honeymoon, à la Iraq, where the old guard played a role in increasing the costs of doing business with Baghdad.

And always in the background is how Israel will respond as it is committed to denying Iran a long-term military presence in Syria. The war has already claimed more than 360,000 lives and displaced several million people to neighboring countries, internally, and overseas.

Iran has invested economically in Syria and provided boots on the ground through its proxies, militias, and military, and it expects to gain from its efforts. Russia has provided air cover, weapons, missiles, air defense systems, and advisors, and is taking a more long-term and global view of its investments in Syria. According to an article on the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (WINEP) blog, “Putin has multiple goals in the Middle East, but fundamentally, his Syria intervention was about upending the US-led global order. Kremlin activities across the region share the same aim: to undermine the US and bolster Moscow’s position in the region by deterring the West and maintaining low-level conflict… Despite Moscow’s many difficulties, it has staying power in the region and its influence will not wither away on its own any time soon.”

It goes on to detail Putin’s pragmatic approach showing flexibility and adaptability, building relations with all major actors in the region, as far afield as Morocco. The author notes that “Moscow’s partnership with Iran shows no signs of abating, as their joint interest in opposition to the US continues to override the differences between them. Indeed, Moscow’s entire Syria strategy is predicated on a partnership with the Islamic Republic, which bears the bulk of the costs in Syria.”

Recognizing that Russia lacks resources to lead Syria’s reconstruction, Putin is using the refugees to leverage funding from the EU, which is unwilling to play Russia’s game. This is forcing Russia to engage a broader set of potential funders, including China, without losing its role as primary power in Syria and the region. The article concludes, “On balance, he has achieved many key objectives, largely due to the West’s limited engagement and his own commitment. Putin’s Syria adventure has yet to play itself out. But to date, Putin has managed to largely outmaneuver the United States.”

As the Syrian civil war winds down, there is increasing concern regarding returning foreign fighters. Imagine the disquiet in Lebanon where they are part and parcel of the domestic scene. Hezbollah will soon be at a crossroads, whether to continue to act as Iran’s proxy and a state-within-a-state in destabilizing Lebanon, or will it rely less on it arms and more on its political role to contribute to Lebanon’s recovery?

As an article in Haaretz put it, “Hezbollah is now caught between its desire to strengthen the status of Iran and Syria and the need to reinforce its domestic political power, which allows it to dictate the government’s position as it sees fit. But in the absence of a government, Hezbollah has no real leverage, and its insistence on dictating the government’s makeup also places it in the way of Lebanon overcoming its severe economic crisis.

In the last election, Hezbollah was challenged in several of its traditional strongholds, and its current blocking of the government formation is straining its ties with its Maronite and Shia constituents. The recent controversy over its tunnels into Israel brought little response from Hezbollah aside from the usual tit-for-tat speeches. The author believes that “It is clear that Hezbollah will have to restrain its response in order to avoid further complicating the formation of the government and the damage that an Israeli strike could cause Lebanon. It must also be very careful not to move Israeli military action from Syria to Lebanon.”

So the question continues: Will Hezbollah recognize that it can play a constructive role in rebuilding and reforming Lebanon, or will it bring down that fragile state through its undermining of the political balance in Lebanon?

Parsing the “Withdrawal” of US Forces from Syria – Is There a Way Ahead?

In today’s current usage, ‘parsing’ is usually applied to data. As someone who acquired his vocabulary in the last century, I prefer to use ‘parsing’ to refer to the deconstruction of a sentence or expression to determine its meaning. I have been struggling to parse President Trump’s December 19th announcement regarding the imminent withdrawal of US forces from Syria, a statement that has been walked back by National Security Advisor John Bolton and the President’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

The torrent (there is no other adequate adjective – yet even ‘torrent’ has acquired a data definition) of commentaries and opinions unleashed by Trump’s statement and subsequent clarifications make it unlikely that any clarity will be forthcoming any time soon. The visits of Secretary Pompeo and Mr. Bolton to the region to assure allies and friends of what precisely is going on may make no difference. If Mr. Erdogan’s rejection of Mr. Bolton’s overtures is any indication, there is a long and winding road ahead.

Obfuscations aside, the visits of the US emissaries and the now growing body of commentaries from the region, do not offer more clarity on a policy that has implications beyond Syria and the Middle East. In fact, what was initially a chorus of disappointment and shock has been countered by a wave of argumentation in support of the President’s action largely because the US shouldn’t have been in Syria in the first place!

The debate continues about the short and long-term consequences. For example, an article in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) early on raised the specter of Turkey invading Syria to clean up what’s left of the US mission to defeat ISIS. “IS has not been sustainably defeated, Iran and its proxies remain active in Syria, and a political process to end the war has not yet taken root. If the administration truly aims to fulfill its stated objectives there, it should immediately implement an alternative course of action.” It notes its concerns in several areas: a premature attack by Turkish forces in the area might inadvertently harm US forces; a Turkish operation may not be adequate to defeat ISIS and it could derail efforts at establishing the proposed constitutional reform process, “and give Assad, Russia, and Iran excuses to reject talks intended to end Assad’s authoritarian grasp over time;” and finally, the withdrawal would undermine the growing rapprochement between Turkey and the US.

Yet it has become clear in recent weeks that in fact the withdrawal had been on the boards since March 2018 and only the timing and the lack of consultation internally and with allies was the surprising element. Far from being a spoiler, Turkey now has emerged as a partner willing to take up the crusade against ISIS and finish what America started, while also taming the Kurdish allies of the US. Its rejection of Bolton’s qualifiers demonstrated the lack of coordination and consultation that has bothered many analysts who expressed concern with the apparent void of an overall regional US strategy.

The impact on Syria’s neighbors raised alarms as neither Israel, Jordan, nor Lebanon were prepared for the shift in policy that has critical security implications. Although Erdogan’s conversation with Trump was supposed to be what lit the fuse, even Turkey was caught unprepared for next steps. A post in Al Monitor pointed out that “Damascus would be eager to re-establish its sovereignty over the area rather than see it overrun by Turkey. This would place the issue into the laps of Moscow and Tehran…some hard bargaining will take place between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran in the coming days and weeks. Moscow may try to facilitate a deal between the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and Damascus.”

The damage to the US role in the region was well expressed in an Al Jazeera post. “It is important to point out that US’ policy on Syria has been failing dramatically in the past seven years and Trump might just have put it out of its misery…Washington can neither make a deal nor confront Moscow in Syria nor does it seem invested in advancing a UN-led political process…Regardless of whether Trump’s decision will stand or not, the reputation of his administration will most likely suffer, as it is increasingly being seen by allies around the world as erratic and unreliable. The fact that the US is letting down its Kurdish allies will make it difficult for other forces in the Middle East to trust it. The US had no strategy of how to stay in Syria, now it is clear it has no strategy of how to leave.”

The weakness of the US position in Syria made the American withdrawal inevitable according to a Foreign Policy Research Institute article. “With this terrorist threat much diminished, the legal and public rationale for a continued US military presence has evaporated. The mismatch of the vital Russian and Iranian interests engaged in Syria against a weakening rationale for a US military presence in Syria provides leaders in Moscow and Tehran with a tremendous advantage. They have every incentive to match or exceed any US investment or action taken in Syria to preserve what they perceive as their own vital interests there.” Moreover, the article sees a light of sorts in leaving the field to Iran and Russia. “For the foreseeable future, a needy Syria will remain a drain on Russian and Iranian coffers while being unable to contribute anything of significance in terms of concrete military, political, or economic power to the region or beyond.”

Looking for more light on the topic of who won what, a posting in Lobelaw went even further, noting that “A sober analysis shows that Iran has gained very little in exchange for all of its financial and human expenditures in the Middle East, including in Syria. It shows the limits of Iran’s influence over Arab politics. It also shows how self-defeating Iran’s foreign policy has been over the last forty years.”

This sentiment was not widely shared by analysts looking at the implications of the withdrawal for Israel, most likely the impetus for the fence-mending mission by Bolton. The American withdrawal gives Iran access to more terrain and control over Syria and may encourage its proxy Hezbollah into increasing its pressure on Israel, which is still pumping its fists over the tunnels under Lebanon’s southern border. “Regardless of what happens next, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops will embolden Iran. And if Israel escalates its campaign against both Iran and Hezbollah, war becomes much more likely,” said an article in Vox.

What will transpire from the Bolton and Pompeo visits will give the US more time to consider how to best recover from Trump’s initial tweet by extending the timeframe for withdrawal, listening to the concerns of allies and others in the region, and sorting out some formula for engaging Turkey and the Gulf Arabs to generate a coherent strategy for accepting the Assad regime and eliminating the ISIS threat. How this will support Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is very unclear.

Syria Ascending While Lebanon Flounders

President Michel Aoun must be gnashing his teeth as his erstwhile partner, Hezbollah, has created yet another obstacle to the formation of the government, insisting on the allocation of a ministerial position to its Sunni allies in the March 8 bloc. After coming within sight of a deal before this latest roadblock, Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri decided it was better to stay in Paris after expending enormous energy placating all of the demands so that a list was almost assured. Almost – until Hezbollah decided that no government was better for its interests, once again giving critics the opportunity to challenge its participation in any government.

Syria wasted no time in building on its success at the Istanbul meeting of Russia, Germany, France, and Turkey to dismiss the UN’s formula for a constitutional conference and submit it/Russia’s formula for a “peace process” in the country. Not once, but twice, the final communique emphasized Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, challenging the US and Israel in particular, which have very specific ideas about the country’s future. Although Syria and Iran were not specifically mentioned, it is clear that the outcome of the meeting was a plus for them and Russia.

With recent reports of its naval expansion in the eastern Mediterranean and control of its own airbase near Latakia, Russia shows that it has returned to the region for the long haul. Iran will continue to have influence in Syria both through its own forces and commercial activities, as well as through Assad’s reliance on Hezbollah. What is unclear is if Iran will have direct control over its drone and missile production facilities in Syria allegedly run by the IRG, or if these will be transitioned over to Syrian and Hezbollah forces.

Turkey has upped the ante by attacking YPG forces that are part of the US-led effort against ISIS in the Euphrates area, creating more problems for the US, UK, and French forces there. Additionally, there is some confusion as to how Syrian Kurds will participate in any peace formula given Turkey’s hardline towards their presence. Ironically, given the history of both Assad regimes being elected with more than 90% of votes cast, an article from the Carnegie Endowment site Diwan noted “It takes fierce optimism to believe Syrian elections can be held in compliance with the highest international standards of transparency and accountability,” as mentioned in the communique.

A related issue tackled on the Diwan site is how the Syrian regime will manage the many militias it supports as the war winds down. In the jargon of conflict resolution, the process is called DDR, or “disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation.” The effort is based on the assumption that there is a means to delineate between Syria’s regular and irregular forces, which may seem like an unnecessary exercise for the regime at this time. Usually, the challenge is returning opposition forces to a status that allows efforts at peace-building and reconstruction to proceed. In Syria, one cannot overlook the country’s need for “Sustaining a network of regime-affiliated personnel to neutralize domestic opponents, compensate for the shortcomings of the Syrian state and army, and prevent the regime’s collapse. In the post-conflict phase, these militias will not be easily dismantled because they have become an integral part of the power structure and will increasingly operate under the umbrella of the regular forces.”

If fact, the integration of militias and regular forces has been going on for some time as the Assad regime has sought to build local capabilities to support its goals. Those who have achieved success in the many areas of conflict in the country are already being integrated into the regular army. For others, the potential for lingering dissatisfaction and opposition would only fester, as was the case in Iraq.

As the article concludes, “Rather than risk such an outcome, the regime would prefer to continue to incorporate these militias and leaders into official structures while attempting to keep the system in balance by playing different power centers off against one another. Integrating the militias into the regular forces also gives the regime room to employ the state’s legitimacy to try to keep them in check.”

While the US has settled on a Syria strategy for this quarter, there are concerns that it lacks a strategic goal to guide its policymaking. As an article posted by the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center points out, “The Trump administration’s professed strategy of using the American presence in Syria to force favorable concessions deemed to be in the US interest is too easily thwarted by rival players. There will be no winner and, instead, the game will continue to reset.”

The argument is made that if the US decides to stay in Syria, assuming Turkey and Russia will not pose threats to our presence there and costs will be contained, thus avoiding Congressional attention, the US has a workable strategy. But Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria are aware of the Administration’s thinking and will continue to challenge the US presence by attacking the YPG, making civilian overflights of US positions, putting pressure on transportation routes for supplies, and continued exclusion of the US from efforts to deliver a robust peace effort.

In the meantime, Russia and Iran are extending their logistics networks throughout the country, contracts for reconstruction are being signed, and overall it looks like a scenario ensures Russian interests and preeminence in the region. The core of the conundrum as described in the article is “The United States has conditioned a peace agreement on the removal of Iranian-commanded forces. This begs the question: What happens if the Syrian regime, even after an agreement is reached with Russia on some sort of governance changes, requests that the Iranian government stay in Syria, while demanding that the other external actors withdraw?”

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

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.

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.

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).

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.


Assad’s Survival is Not Syria’s Destiny

I would like to think, as the Russians and Chinese seem to believe, that Bashar Assad can end the carnage in Syria and still remain a viable leader for his country…but that time has passed. I met with President Assad five times between 2001 and 2005 as a private citizen, representative of the think tank community or as part of the American Task Force for Lebanon. At that time, he still had the chance to make his presidency a force for progress and stability.

During these meetings, Assad emphasized that he had made a strategic choice on peace with Israel, and furthermore was ready to secure the border with Iraq during a time of the Iraqi war when it was disruptive to US interests.  He noted the need to stop the transit of terrorist forces through his territory, including Hamas and Hezbollah. He even occasionally mentioned reforms, but indicated that, like his father, the survival of Syria was paramount, meaning the Assad regime.

At the time, Assad preferred a comprehensive agreement with the US that addressed both sides’ needs, so that any and all problems between us would be put on the table for resolution before tackling preferred options or individual confidence building measures by either party. In one conversation he said, “We are not your soldiers,” explaining that rather than small-tit for tat-confidence building measures demanded by the US, he preferred to have agreement on the overall package first.

This message of a possible way forward was carried back through several channels to the US government. So angered by Assad’s policies in Iran and Lebanon, the US was unwilling to engage Damascus without concrete signs of change. At the time, America’s decision didn’t appear defensible, although in hindsight it may be now.

It is a fact that without American interest to engage them, Assad went shopping and began to negotiate a peace deal with Israel under the sponsorship of Turkey. Leaving the US out of the regional equation meant that Lebanon faced even greater uncertainty and danger, and US interests were left to the goodwill of others.

We will never know if Assad was serious about a “package deal.” It’s too late for second guessing. He had his chance and the Russians should understand this long history with Bashar Assad and the chances he had to prove himself. The question now being debated long and loud is “how?”

The primary challenge is how to engage him in a single-minded dialogue that moves him towards an exit sooner rather than later. Russian officials failed this month to secure any concessions from him after the Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council postponed possibly more severe action against Syria. Their minimal formula of a national unity government with a deliberately slow power-sharing agreement is doomed by the lack of support in the international community and the Arab League, as well as the Syrian opposition. And there is genuine concern that Sunni extremists, funded by outside sources, pose a significant threat to the many confessional groups in Syria, including Christians, Druze, Alawites, and even Iraqi refugees.

The debate about ousting Assad ranges and rages from the simplistic to the unworkable. The future of the Syrian people is in peril without a way forward that ends the regime and restores a sense of communal balance before it is too late. But then, it may already have reached a tipping point into civil war. Assad’s departure may not heal Syria but it will reduce the likelihood that the conflict will mirror the chaos in Libya and Yemen.

The international community, with Arab leadership, must continue to tighten the noose around the regime through coordinated actions that do not require UN Security Council actions, until such time that Russia and China are persuaded to follow suit.  Assad’s so-called referendum cannot slow the pressure for reform and reconciliation. Only consistent and determined actions on the part of the international community will demonstrate to Russia and China that Syria’s real intentions do not serve theirs.  In the end Assad must be denied all remaining support, including Russian and Chinese, and the resources he has to continue the violation of the Syrian people. If we act now, Syria may be spared the violence of ethnic and sectarian strife that lurks behind the current conflict between the regime and the Syrian people.