Syria Street, Lebanon

Dr Alia Brahimi

Reports of Syrian forces shooting across Syria's borders with Lebanon and Turkey serve as a reminder that what happens in Syria has serious implications for surrounding states too. The situation in Turkey is, perhaps, well-known - as the Turkish government has made evident its growing displeasure at the spill-over. 

Because of such events, patience in Turkey with Bashar al-Assad's regime is wearing thin, but in Lebanon, given its internal tension between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime, such a prospect is much less likely. The introduction of the Annan Plan, which appears to be making some fragile progress, only increases uncertainty about what the outcome (and who the winners) will likely be. In the end, however, it is unlikely that any of the regime's regional and international critics will intervene militarily in order to halt any renewed bloodshed inside Syria itself.

The reality is that the Assad regime has benefited from considerable lee-way, unlike its counterparts in other frontiers of the "Arab Spring". The instability in Syria is viewed as especially delicate, due to its susceptibility to regional contagion, in consequence of Syria's geostrategic position as well as its political alliances. In short, most options for external powers to engage in ending the violence appear politically booby-trapped.

As I argued previously with George Joffe, in the worsening conflict in Syria, great power politics are mapping dangerously onto regional power struggles, which are, in turn, underpinned by sectarian rivalries. These dynamics work to mitigate widespread repulsion at the Syrian regime's actions, because they simultaneously threaten the even-more morally dangerous prospect of a regional sectarian war.

Within the region, the conflict in Syria is viewed through complex political prisms which are altogether different from paradigms such as the "responsibility to protect". Lebanon is one example of how concern about the mounting civilian death toll in Syria is necessarily tempered by competing exigencies, by local politics and, in some cases, by instincts for survival. 

Syria Street

"People are dead in the streets. All I can remember is that people are dead in the streets," whispers Nadia, who recently arrived in the north of Lebanon from the Bab Amr district of Homs. Her eyes are trained on the squalid floor of her family's windowless dwellings in the Bab Tebaneh neighbourhood of Tripoli. The rent - a notably inflated $200 for the month - was paid up front, and she has no illusions that she and her children will be evicted if they fail to find the cash for next month's instalment. "We're not receiving any aid whatsoever ... Even if we get scraps of food, we don't have the gas with which to cook it," she says. 

"The only help we're getting in Lebanon is from people's goodwill," says Alaa, a patisserie chef from Homs who depleted his savings to pay his family's way into Lebanon, and now can't find work in Tripoli. He describes how, in Lebanon as opposed to Turkey, Syrian refugees feel that they have been left by the state to fend for themselves. They depend on ad hoc donations from generous individuals and (mainly Islamist) charitable associations, and can never be sure of their next meal. 

Indeed, Bab Tebaneh is a predominantly Salafi neighbourhood which directly borders the Jabal Mohsen area, a pro-Syrian Alawite stronghold. Tripoli itself is ancestrally part of Greater Syria. The two communities have clashed since the Lebanese civil war, as attested by the banners dedicated to fallen martyrs on either side. Violence flared up as recently as February. Appropriately, the two neighbourhoods are separated only by "Syria Street". Here, sectarian fissures map directly onto the regional-cum-domestic faultline concerning Syria.

Beyond Bab Tebaneh, the network which aims to provide support to the Syrian arrivals in Tripoli appears distinctively (Sunni) Islamist, as does the "Hospital, Orphanage and House of Martys" which treats wounded Syrian opposition fighters. 

'Displaced Syrians'

Many of the estimated 20,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are believed to have taken shelter in Wadi Khalid, a border region in which the reach of the Lebanese state has always been minimal. A number of Lebanese families have opened their homes. The UNHCR is active, compiling registers and offering basic services, but its activities remain largely under the radar. In fact, the Lebanese government does not recognise incoming Syrians as "refugees", but rather as "displaced Syrians". Lebanon is not a state party to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 protocol. 

Sensitivities about Lebanon's new guests are deeply rooted in Lebanon's political system as well its psyche. "The government is very much under Hezbollah's authority so they don't dare to help the refugees," the former MP Nayla Mu'awwad said. "Some people think that if we let the refugees through we'll get more and more coming, like the Palestinians once did, and then we'll get instability." 

Indeed, Lebanon is uneasy about the influx of Syrians for two related reasons. First, an uncomfortable precedent was set by the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived for decades in camps around the country of roughly 4 million citizens. "The Lebanese are tired of refugees," said Marwan Abou Fadel, the co-founder and vice president of the Lebanese Democratic Party, which currently has a minister in the government. 

"It is a very difficult issue here because of demographics." 

The mostly Sunni Palestinian refugees were denied Lebanese citizenship and even basic rights - including, until recently, the right to work legally, based on fears of upsetting the confessional balance in Lebanon [PDF]. Still, the Palestinian presence in Lebanon is widely cited as a factor catalysing the civil war of 1975 to 1990, exposing, as it did, the fragility of the sectarian balance propping up the Lebanese order. The Palestine Liberation Organisation relocated to Beirut after its expulsion from Jordan in 1970, and Yasser Arafat's creation of a state-within-a-state polarised Lebanese politics, dealt a body blow to the already emaciating authority of the Lebanese government, and bound up its hosts in the hydra-headed Arab-Israeli power struggle.

In the words of one British embassy official: "The issue of Syrian refugees is not seen as a humanitarian problem in Lebanon. It's a confessional issue." As such, to offer an organised, public and large-scale sanctuary for Syrian refugees, in the manner of the Turkish response, "would be too much for the Shia and the Christians". 

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Posted: 23 April 2012

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alia Brahimi|. This article first appeared on|