Will Syria Push Lebanon Off the Cliff?

Thursday, March 9, 2023
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

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.