In the past months, Syrian refugees have repeatedly come under attack in Lebanon, in scenes of mob violence, burned-down tent camps, and several lethal stabbings and shootings. “The attacks against Syrians, most of them refugees, are being carried out in a climate of official indifference and discrimination,” writes Human Rights Watch. When the group investigated eleven incidents in August and September, it found that at least four of these attacks took place in full view of Lebanese security forces that turned a blind eye to what was going on.
At the root of the problem lies a refugee crisis of truly catastrophic proportions, as recently explained by the Carnegie Endowment’s Mario Abou Zeid in a piece for Syria in Crisis. Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million citizens, has so far taken in more than 1.1 million Syrians according to UNHCR registers (and that is doubtlessly an underestimation of the true figure).
With Lebanon’s population now more than one-quarter Syrian, the number of refugees continues to grow—and so do the Lebanese-Syrian and intra-Lebanese sectarian tensions that threaten to break the country apart.
The Arsal Clashes
The refugee influx, fighting along the Lebanese-Syrian border, and the intervention of Lebanese Shia and Sunni Islamists on opposite sides in Syria’s civil war have all contributed greatly to the withering of Lebanon’s already precarious stability. Syrian rebel factions are now slowly but irrevocably being drawn onto the center stage of Lebanese politics, particularly in the north of the country, which borders Syria’s Homs Province and the Qalamoun area in the Rif Dimashq Province. The Syrian opposition has faced major setbacks in both areas, and fighters are consequently being squeezed into Lebanon where they seek shelter in refugee camps and among sympathetic local Sunni Muslims.
This summer, Lebanese-Syrian clashes rocked Arsal, a northeastern Sunni border town that is home to thousands of refugees. Arsal has long served as a support hub for Syrian rebels operating in the mountainous borderlands, and the area has come under repeated cross-border attacks by Syrian government forces.
Tensions have risen sharply since winter 2013 after joint offensives on the Syrian side of the border were conducted by the Syrian Arab Army and the National Defense Force militia, both loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia militia. The fighting has pushed thousands of refugees and retreating rebels into Lebanese territory, inflaming local conflicts and further undermining Lebanese government control. Once a peripheral community of little importance to the rest of the country, Arsal has now become a bellwether of Lebanon’s slowly crumbling stability.
In early August, major fighting erupted in Arsal between the Lebanese Army, with tacit backing from local Shia Muslims affiliated with Hezbollah, and Syrian jihadi factions that were able to call on fighters from inside the town’s refugee camps as well as on local Sunni Lebanese supporters. During a week of fighting, around 30 members of the Lebanese Army and security forces were captured. They ended up in the hands of the most powerful Sunni forces in the area: the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and its even more extreme offshoot, the so-called Islamic State. (These two jihadi factions are locked in a fierce rivalry in the rest of Syria, but in the Qalamoun-Lebanon region, their local leaders seem to work well together.) Some of these soldiers have since been released, apparently due to mediation efforts by Qatar and Lebanese Sunni figures, but three have been executed—and each execution has sparked a predictable wave of Lebanese popular outrage, anti-Syrian rhetoric, and retaliatory violence against randomly selected refugees.
The Jihadi Plan: Mobilization by Polarization
In return for freeing their hostages, the jihadis have sought a number of concessions, some of them more realistic than others. These demands include the release of Sunni detainees in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison, many of them jailed due to their association with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or other radical jihadi factions; Hezbollah’s retreat from Syria; and a new set of security arrangements in the border region that would ensure some freedom of movement for the Syrian groups.
Most worryingly, the jihadis are exploiting the crisis—which is to no small part of their own making—to cast themselves as champions of Sunni Muslims generally and the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon specifically. When the Nusra Front says that more soldiers will die unless Lebanese attacks on Syrians refugees cease and Hezbollah leaves Syria, its intended audience is neither the Lebanese government (which cannot effectively police sectarian violence and does not control Hezbollah), nor Hezbollah (which doesn’t care), nor the Lebanese people (since linking refugee conditions to the murder of Lebanese prisoners will only fuel anti-Syrian sentiment).
Rather, the jihadis are seeking to gain the ear of the Syrian refugees, who currently lack any sort of political representation or armed protection, making them ripe for political exploitation. Ultimately, the jihadis seek to inextricably embed themselves in the Syrian community in Lebanon by acting as its leaders and defenders. If embraced by a critical mass of refugees, who are already profoundly alienated from the Lebanese state and increasingly also from their host communities but lack strong alternative leadership, the jihadis would finally have found the type of popular base that they have for decades been unable to cultivate among Lebanese Sunnis.
In the long run, the growing Lebanese-Syrian rift presents a lethal threat to Lebanon as a nation, and you would expect state authorities to seek to defuse the conflict. But instead, as documented by Human Rights Watch, the Lebanese government seems hell-bent on making itself part of the problem by encouraging or actively participating in the harassment of Syrian refugees. Last month, the government released 27 Syrians who had been detained during the Arsal raids as a “goodwill gesture” in the kidnapping negotiations. Such behavior certainly won’t earn the government any goodwill among the Syrian refugees. Rather, using refugees as human bargaining chips can only help the jihadis make their case that the Lebanese Army is a hostile anti-Syrian and anti-Sunni force, and it will help them blur the distinction between refugee and rebel in precisely the way desired by the Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
Ultimately, army and state complicity in the abuses against Syrians risks legitimizing the presence of Syrian armed groups in Lebanon, in the eyes of vulnerable refugees desperate for protection. And since no one else seems prepared to lift a finger to help them, the jihadis currently stand poised to win the race for leadership by default.
The Palestinianization of Syria’s Refugees
International debate about Lebanon’s future has been curiously myopic. It revolves around the Lebanese factions themselves and blithely assumes that as long as the country’s established Shia and Sunni elites—essentially Hezbollah and the Hariris, a powerful Saudi-backed Sunni family—prefer to avoid all-out conflict, it is not going to happen.
This ignores the fact that Lebanon is now home to a million-strong Syrian community, which must at some point emerge as a political subject in its own right. Regardless of anyone’s preferences, the Syrians are no temporary guests. Many if not most will probably remain in Lebanon for the rest of their lives and, unless the Syrian conflict somehow magically resolves itself, new generations will be born there.
The only possible conclusion from this is that the Syrians are now well on their way to forming a permanent diaspora on the Palestinian model, only several times larger and more deeply implanted across Lebanese territory (since the Palestinians who arrived after the Israeli-Arab conflicts of 1948–1949 and 1967 and the Jordanian civil war of 1970 were confined to strictly delineated refugee camps).
No one who enjoys even a cursory familiarity with Lebanese history can be unaware of how the imbalance in the 1960s and 1970s between the Palestinians’ acute political marginalization and their material dispossession, on the one hand, and the disproportional military power of Palestinian armed factions, on the other, helped catalyze the Lebanese state collapse of 1975.
Pre-2011 Lebanon No Longer Exists
It is time to reckon honestly with the fact that Lebanon’s sectarian and political balance has changed beyond all recognition. From the end of the civil war in 1990 until 2011–2012, Lebanon was a country of many minorities, where Hezbollah and its pro-Iran and pro-Assad allies clearly held the upper hand in terms of military force. This is no longer the case.
While everyone seems loath to admit it, Lebanon now has—for the first time in its history—a Sunni majority. This has been obscured by the fact that about half of these Sunnis are Syrians who are theoretically supposed to return home at some unspecified date in the future (just like the Palestinians). But unless the war in Syria winds down in the near future, there’s nothing temporary about their presence in Lebanon. Rather, their reality is now one of complete disenfranchisement and economic misery in a place they must sooner or later begin to call home. And they’re going to want to change that.
In addition, the military imbalance that has guaranteed relative peace in Lebanon since the end of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, with the exception of a very brief bout of Sunni-Shia fighting in 2008, is also withering away. Hezbollah’s forces are badly stretched by their intervention in Syria, with no end in sight. Now, the still-limited entanglement of Syrian armed factions in Lebanon has begun to even out the odds, tipping the scales toward Sunni Islamist groups not only in Arsal but also in the northern Sunni stronghold of Tripoli.
Apart from the pie-in-the-sky goal of quickly putting an end to the Syrian war, it is difficult to conceive of any mix of policies that could at this stage effectively contain the spread of insecure zones in Lebanon and prevent the growing Lebanese-Syrian violence from melting into Lebanon’s own sectarian problems. But certainly, no answers will be found until the right questions are asked—and they won’t be, until we recognize that the Lebanon of 2011 no longer exists.