As controversies surrounding the return of Syrian refugees resurface amid calls for Lebanon to normalize ties with the Syrian regime, and in light of the renewed academic interest in the issue, Annahar publishes an excerpt from a study conducted by Ziad El Sayegh, an expert in Public Policies and Refugee crises. The study was first published by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Maison du Futur (MDF), a research, analysis, and dialogue institution aimed at enhancing the scholarly and cultural life of Lebanon, the Arab world, and the broader Middle East.
The national disagreement about the crisis of the displaced Syrians continues and worsens. The regional-international clash is escalating amidst the deadlock of a political solution to secure a dignified, secure and sustainable return. The failure of the Lebanese state to manage the crisis and encourage their return is tragic and confusing and although some have returned, their number remains symbolic. As for the pattern of balance between the humanitarian aid, the sovereign obsessions and the urgent needs of the host communities, not to mention the massive fragmentation of Lebanon’s foreign policy, this pattern is faulty and cannot be restored in a coherent manner under the insistence of the ruling political forces to indulge in their disagreement, whether by disagreeing about fundamental issues or by playing smart in the exchange of political roles regarding what we have previously mentioned.
Given the immense complexity surrounding this crisis, it is necessary to use a simulation to describe the possible future choices and scenarios, or more accurately, the assumed options and scenarios of the displacement crisis. This may help in generating recommendations on how to develop a national public policy that has been delayed since 2011, hoping that the political stakeholders as well as the religious ones, will grow a conscience and steer away from populism, demagoguery, improvisation and politicization.
Projecting the worst, the best and the most likely scenarios about the future of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon – based on the multifaceted and multilateral geopolitical dimension – is a priori based on precise choices summarized in three categories: “Conspiratorial Complexity”, “Unrealistic Simplification” and “Initiative Pragmatism”.
The Conspiratorial Complexity
Conspiracy theories have become the modus operandi of Lebanese decision-makers. If a conspiracy to resettle the displaced Syrians where they sought refuge and block their return to Syria was cooked up – and this implies an assumption that requires systematic investigation – peddling this conspiracy actively and relentlessly should not keep its proponents from developing a roadmap to confront it. Resorting to this theory without checking the possibility to thwart is a sign of either a deficit that perpetuates the collapse of the state national security and stands in the way of its supreme interest and protection policies, or troubling anxiety about this conspiracy, which raises serious questions about its outcome. Both deficit and anxiety result in a high level of repercussions. Therefore, conspiratorial complications should be avoided.
The Unrealistic Simplification
In contrast to the conspiratorial complexity phobia, there are those who call for a simplification of Lebanon’s grievances caused by the displacement crisis. They believe that the displaced have established an economic cycle in Lebanon, or they have attracted the international community to support Lebanon. Some even believe that the population that fled the instability and war in Syria has become a factor of stability and neutralization of Lebanon from the wars in the Middle East, especially that it is of utmost importance to Europe to stop the movement of Syrians toward its territories, specifically after the surge of the national right-wing populist movements in the founding countries of the political-economic-administrative European union, for which immigration constitutes a threat against their traditional values. All this is an unrealistic simplification, as both the Lebanese and the displaced Syrians suffer from two tragedies. The first is the fragmentation of the Syrian society and the attempt to integrate it into the Lebanese society will, in turn, lead to the fragmentation of the latter. The second is linked to an excessive weakness in the response of donor countries to the needs of the displaced and the host communities, which will accumulate burdens that will surpass the socio-economic aspect and push us into a circle of chaos and tensions that will not be possibly contained. The unrealistic simplification is as risky as the conspiratorial complexity, which drives us to embark on the process of building the architecture of the initiative pragmatism.
The Initiative Pragmatism
The tragedy of the displaced Syrians ends with their return to Syria. Their return will preserve their national identity, protect the fabric of their pluralistic society and restore the territorial integrity and demography of Syria. But this return requires legal, security and socio-economic guarantees, which depends inevitably on a political solution, and hence the beginning of reconstruction. Until this return occurs, and its practical aspects become clear, would it not be better to adopt an initiative pragmatism based on two parallel structures? The first entails wise management of the crisis that balances human concern and sovereignty obsession. The second is to use serious and purposeful diplomacy that avoids the flexing of sluggish muscles and the marketing of accusations that often – unless coherent evidence suggests otherwise – lead to denying the responsibility to manage the crisis and the return.
The initiative pragmatism is the one capable of diagnosing the three scenarios for the future of the displaced and the methodology to deal with them: the best, the worst and the most likely. However, each of these scenarios is shaped by what the parties involved in the displaced Syrian crisis want. In these scenarios, the host communities might be an extraneous detail, in the temporary and transitional sense.
This brings up fundamental questions: Is there a plan for a demographic change in a sectarian confessional disguise in Syria that will not allow the displaced to return? Who is the first beneficiary of this plan and who will implement it? To what extent is it true that there are in the international community and in the Arab world those who want to use the displaced Syrians as a pressure card in the process of negotiating a political solution in Syria? And what about the fact that a realistic settlement will be imposed on Lebanon in return for continued support for aid at all levels? How would a policy be formulated taking into account the outcome of the Geneva negotiating tracks under the auspices of the United Nations? What is the complementarity between relief intervention to secure the needs of the displaced and the development of the host communities in light of the prolonged crisis and the tiredness of the donor countries? Is it right to talk in Lebanon about the possibility of integration of the displaced, which means ending their right to return after an experience that is still ongoing and loaded of tragedies caused to the Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese alike?
Best scenario: Comprehensive and Immediate Return
The comprehensive and immediate return of the displaced people to Syria is the best scenario. It brings Syrians back to their country where they will regain the welfare and vitality of their society.
It goes without saying that this comprehensive and immediate return is supposed to be accompanied by three guarantees. Legal, security and socio-economic guarantees for returnees. Legal guarantees in the sense of preserving their right to return to their homelands and to restore their properties even if destroyed. Security guarantees in the sense of protecting them from arrest, liquidation, or disappearance, and exempt them from compulsory military service, especially if there is a genuine intention to rehabilitate the Syrian civil society in lieu of its sustaining its militarization, and because peace cannot be achieved through military mobilization. Socio-economic guarantees in the sense of transferring the assistance given to displaced persons in host countries to those who are determined to return and providing them with incentives.
All these guarantees would not be possible if a political solution is not achieved in Syria. However, the return must be accompanied by a reconstruction process, but the latter is delayed given the absence of a political solution. Facing this situation, the adoption of the incentives that we mentioned should be a priority and they are not insurmountable if the political will of those who are responsible for the field initiative in Syria is pure and honest, and this assumption seems far from true.
Worst case scenario: no-return and fragmentation of two communities
The stay of displaced Syrians in Lebanon is the worst-case scenario that would fragment two communities: The displaced community and the Lebanese host community.
The stay of the Syrians in Lebanon will naturally recall Lebanese-Syrian memories fraught with painful remembrances. These memories that mark 30 years of Syrian occupation – guardianship over Lebanon and thousands of dead, kidnapped, imprisoned and missing Lebanese in Syria, were surpassed by all Lebanese when they hosted the displaced persons who fled the Syrian regime’s war and terrorism. However, we cannot deny that a Lebanese party contributed to the displacement of Syrians from their cities, towns and villages, and is still occupying parts of Syria.
In addition to the Lebanese-Syrian memories, which are loaded with bloody facts, the stay of those displaced in Lebanon will pose an existential challenge and socio-economic burden that has been surfacing since the beginning of the crisis in the competition for jobs, the increasing emigration of the Lebanese and the tiredness of donor countries of providing aids to both Syrian and Lebanese.
Amid all of this, the most dangerous fact is that the stay of Syrians will shape a new demographic and “Religiographic” structure and dynamics in Lebanon and Syria, and it is not necessarily possible to keep Europe and the Arab world away from waves of asylum stemming from this painful reality. Additionally, the decrease of educational support and the lack of employment opportunities will lead to extremism and counter-extremism that would not be based on sectarianism as much as it would be based on socio-economic factors.
The non-return, at least temporarily, is a hypothetical scenario drawn from the assertion of the international community’s, the United States, the European Union, Switzerland, and the United Nations, that the future of the displaced is in Syria and not in their host countries. This virtual scenario, however, should not be seen as improbable, and Lebanon should be prepared for at least a long-term – non-permanent – stay of the displaced and should put in place a roadmap to deal with this stay, so as to avoid a Lebanese-Syrian explosion similar to the Lebanese-Palestinian one.
The most likely scenario: Temporary Stay and Phased Return
The temporary stay of Syrians in Lebanon and their phased return to Syria was symbolically initiated in 2017 and is the most likely scenario.
The temporary stay scenario is a self-evident consequence of the unclear horizons of the political solution in Syria and the ambiguity in securing guarantees for the returnees or those who are determined to return.
This scenario entails a multidimensional roadmap. The first dimension is the classification of the displaced as economic actors (workers), escapers from the regime and its allies, asylum seekers to third countries, or awaiters of financial-economic-social incentives for return. This classification would relieve the worries of the Lebanese people, most importantly the possibility of permanently resettling displaced people in a country that has been grappling with the camouflaged resettlement of the Palestinian refugees for the last 71 years. This classification would also help to push for greater cooperation with Russia as part of the Russian initiative regarding the return of those displaced, all the more with the United States, the European Union and Turkey, to achieve a phased return under a participatory approach that would put pressure on the system and fund UN programs inside Syria. This would be an attempt to pave the way for an integrated political process that launches the reconstruction process and thus incites Syrians to return to their homeland and take part in this process. The second dimension is the restriction of aid from the United Nations and international and local civil society bodies to those displaced who belong to the category of escapers from injustice, war or terrorism, thus strengthening the assumption of the return of those who do not fall within this category. The third dimension is the application of the Lebanese Labor Law to Syrian workers, which would provide a preference for the Lebanese workers and at the same time would secure decent work conditions for Syrian workers in the needed sectors under legal guarantees that protect them from exploitation and abuse. The fourth dimension is a three-column table that determines where the displaced came from, what are the ongoing obstacles hindering their return to where they came from, and how to remove these obstacles at all levels, including reconciliations and the strengthening of safety nets. The fifth dimension is the continuation of educational and empowerment services for the displaced people alongside determining their return destination while giving special attention to the development of the host communities to avoid tensions.
This Temporary Stay and Phased Return scenario is based on crisis management knowledge, and even on the transformation of some of its aspects into constructive opportunities. Lebanon has already commenced some steps, albeit shy, in the framework of CEDRE. CEDRE is an international platform that facilitated the developmental interventions in the sense of providing for the needs of host communities without neglecting the basic needs of the displaced people until their return. CEDRE is a developmental economic Lebanese process taking into consideration the Syria Crisis’s impact on Lebanon.
The most embarrassing question in this most likely scenario is, whether there is a possibility of permanent stay of some displaced people in Lebanon. The answer to such a question would only be correct after the completion of the classification we have proposed.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The consequences of the Syrian displacement crisis for Lebanon has been diagnosed in a clear and detailed manner. The displaced Syrians have been enduring tragic living conditions and are moving toward a bleak horizon. The Lebanese were already experiencing poor governance of their country’s assets that was worsened by the displacement crisis. Syrian refugees and the Lebanese are both victims of the absence of a coherent scientific and practical crisis management. In Syria, the political disruption is lingering, and indicators of demographic sorting are looming without any declared purpose, something that hinders their return.
Based on this complex situation, three conclusions were drawn:
- Caution should be taken regarding any of the scenarios that we have tackled from the standpoint of protecting the national security of Lebanon and the right of the displaced to return and remain safe.
- There is a need to reach a national consensus and endorse a policy in which the government clearly sets its priorities, objectives, and responsibilities and avoids populist slogans.
- There is a need to practice solid national diplomacy that reads regional and international geopolitics and supports Lebanon’s best options to resolve the displacement crisis based on the fundamental principle of respecting the International Humanitarian Law.
Recommendations are summarized as follows:
- Contradictory Lebanese positions regarding the displacement must come to an end and the official position must be unified in a public policy approved by the Council of Ministers
- Launch the mechanism of classification of the displaced based on the following criteria: The economic actors, those who escaped the injustice and war, those who can return, and asylum seekers to third countries.
- Activate liaison with the United Nations Higher Council for Refugees by signing a cooperation protocol between the Lebanese state and the UNHCR, intended to continue the humanitarian support to the displaced and to work on providing guarantees and a timeline for their return.
- Supporting the roadmap of the General Directorate of the General Security in cooperation with the UNHCR.
- Adopt participatory diplomacy with the international community, especially the United States, the European Union, Switzerland, and the League of Arab States, to continue supporting Lebanon in addressing the consequences of the displacement crisis and persistently urge Russia to pressure into securing guarantees for returnees.
- Lastly, Lebanon should ask to participate in the Geneva and Astana peace process and should call the Security Council for an emergency session to recognize the right of return for the displaced under Chapter VII, eliminating the effects of legal and field constraints.
Lebanon and the displaced Syrians, between the management of the crisis and the conditions of safe return, is a complex process and the result of the most serious human tragedy in the twenty-first century …