Michael Young

Not coming home

How Lebanon is affected by sectarian cleansing in Syria

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a press conference on 24 March 2014. (AFP/Yasser al-Zayyat)

You have to hand it to the Aounists. They have a gift for speaking out most forcefully against developments for which they or their allies are responsible.


This week, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said the following at an Education Ministryconference: “There is a genuine scheme to keep the Syrians in Lebanon, and this must be confronted so they should not be turned into permanent refugees.”


Bassil is correct. Syrians must not be resettled in Lebanon. But who is behind this “scheme”? The same people who turned the Syrians into refugees in the first place, and who do not want a mainly Sunni population to return to areas in Syria from which they were chased out. It doesn’t take a prodigy to grasp that this can only be the Assad regime, with Hezbollah collaborating.


Were they Bassil’s targets? More likely he was simply highlighting a demographic reality that threatens to engulf Lebanon’s Christians, but did not want to embarrass Hezbollah and Assad. So he adopted typical Lebanese obliqueness, hinting that what was taking place was a conspiracy.


However, the minister was making a valid point, one that has been shamelessly overlooked internationally (despite efforts by activists to highlight the reality of sectarian cleansing). In its policy of guaranteeing territorial continuity between Damascus and Alawite areas on the coast, the Syrian regime and Iran have sought to alter demographic realities, particularly in the district of Homs, the pivot linking the capital and coastal Syria.


According to figures provided by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon come from adjoining regions in Syria, among them Homs and Qalamoun. Both have strategic importance for Bashar al-Assad’s political survival. If the connection with the Alawite-dominated coast were cut, and with it the means to resupply his army in Damascus with weapons and manpower, the Syrian president would be obliged to abandon the capital and his regime would effectively collapse.


In 2013, Walid Jumblatt had already warned of an effort to alter demographic realities in Homs, warning that real estate records in the city were being destroyed. “The destruction of real-estate records in the city and their replacement with others of different sects is an attempt to alter the political and sectarian identity of the regions stretching from Damascus to the Syrian coast,” Jumblatt had written in an editorial in the weekly Al-Anbaa.


Sources at the UN later confirmed this information to me. Jumblatt cited such sectarian cleansing to condemn the reaction, or non-reaction, of the international community.


When one recalls what happened in Kosovo, this denunciation of double standards is justified. At the height of the conflict in 1998-1999, there were reports that the Serbs had begun to engage in identity cleansing, confiscating passports, land titles and other documents, in order to make it much more difficult for fleeing Kosovars to ever come back.


The reaction in the West was outrage. As this came not long after the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, preventing such behavior was regarded as a test. Ultimately, Western powers prevailed and moral support for the war was determined by a refusal to see another example of Serbian-provoked ethnic cleansing.


The Syrians haven’t been so lucky. Few in the international community have highlighted sectarian cleansing in Syria, let alone identified it as a clearly-planned, systematic objective of the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and abetted by Assad’s other ally, Russia. It is as if the experiences of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Iraq, to name only them—all characterized by violent efforts to alter demographics—have been forgotten.


Bassil would be making a tragic mistake by taking up the issue of Syrian refugees merely to curry favor among his Christian political base. The fate of the refugees is an existential matter for Lebanon and must be addressed away from populist politics.


The foreign minister is in a position to help shape a consensus around the refugee question. He can speak to Hezbollah, whose Shiite community would lose greatly from the permanent settlement of well over a million Sunni refugees. Hezbollah, in turn, has access to Iran and the Assad regime. This, ultimately, might help ensure the return of the refugees to Syria one day. 


At the same time, because Syria is in the midst of conflict, such efforts will fail today. For military reasons neither Assad nor Iran will accept returning a Sunni population that might act as a friendly environment for anti-Assad rebels. Indeed, when 1,500 refugees sought to return to Syria last year after the fighting in Arsal, they were refused entry by the Syrian authorities.


What this means in the future is fairly stark. For the refugees to return home, either Assad must win the war in Syria outright or he must lose. If he wins—which is highly unlikely—expect repatriation to take a long time, as the Syrian regime will want to consolidate itself before taking back a large Sunni population.


If Assad loses, the refugees are more liable to return. However, with Syria’s infrastructure devastated, the pace may, similarly, be slow, even if years of living in abysmal conditions in Lebanon will encourage many to go home nonetheless. Moreover, the need to rebuild Syria will mean job opportunities, assuming there is capital to finance such a monumental project.


Lebanese officials have a duty to raise the refugee issue worldwide, particularly the long-term consequences of permanent resettlement. Yet it serves no purpose talking about ill-defined plots and schemes. Stoking paranoia is not sound policy. Bassil and the Lebanese government must coolly examine ways to reduce pressures on the country.  


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

Adopting typical Lebanese obliqueness, Bassil hinted that what was taking place was a conspiracy. (AFP/Yasser al-Zayyat)

Bassil is correct. Syrians must not be resettled in Lebanon. But who is behind this ‘scheme’? The same people who turned the Syrians into refugees in the first place.”