Over the past few weeks, there has been a sharp debate regarding the Syrians who have been displaced to Lebanon. That is in addition to the many quarrels between the Lebanese government and the opposition. However, both sides did agree on the humanitarian aspect of this tragic situation as well as on the international human rights standards in dealing with similar situations, especially with regard to assistance and relief to the victims and civilians.
Despite that, many inside and outside the Lebanese government have expressed some reservations about the issue and have cited several reasons to be cautious when dealing with the displaced.
Why is that? The first reason is related to Lebanon’s natural and human features. Compared to Syria’s other neighbors, Lebanon has a small surface area and a large population density. As of this writing, official figures by international agencies involved with the displaced Syrians indicate that there may be about 180,000 of them in Lebanon. The Syrian opposition and Lebanese officials say that the actual number is larger. But even the official figure should alarm the government.
For the sake of comparison, what if the United States, whose population is 68 times that of Lebanon, was forced to receive more than 13 million refugees within a few weeks? And if we do a geographic comparison, what if the United States, which is 900 times the size of Lebanon, was forced to receive more than 150 million people within the same period while its national debt was more than $23 trillion dollars? (The US GDP is 425 times that of Lebanon.)
The above represents the magnitude of the displacement disaster, the enormity of the tragedy, and the responsibility facing a government that has very low capabilities.
But there are other concerns and the security issue is a major one. The security threat may come from individuals or organized armed groups. It is well known that the displaced have not gathered in a specific area. And the Lebanese government is unable to put them in camps. How can a small country with limited capabilities put 5% of its inhabitants in camps? The displaced have spread all over the country. Even areas that are far away from the Lebanese-Syrian border have begun to issue official circulars asking residents to report any displaced people they know of in order to assist them.
At the same time that the displaced have been spreading to the north, the Bekaa, Beirut and even to the far south, official security reports have begun to note a substantial and gradual rise in small crimes, theft, and attacks on property. The security forces publish these reports every week. It should be noted that the most disturbing phenomenon is not crimes done by individuals but the existence of organized armed groups. For example, the Lebanese army has issued on Sept. 19 an official report about clashes between Lebanese army units and armed Syrian oppositionists in the Arsal area in the Bekaa, which is one of the areas where Syrian dissidents have gone. Official reports confirm that there has been repeated similar incidents.
On Nov. 1, the Internal Security Forces said that armed Syrian oppositionists attacked their headquarters in the same area. In the North, where many displaced Syrians have gone to, there have been many instances of armed Syrian appearances. On May 22 in Akkar, during the funeral for a Lebanese man who supports the Syrian gunmen, official and media reports spoke of 300 armed Syrians participating in the funeral march.
In Tripoli, the second largest Lebanese city in terms of population, there was a large explosion on Feb. 1. Official security reports say that a weapons and ammunition depot exploded, killing at least two Syrians. In addition, on May 4 in Tripoli Port the army seized a ship, called Lutfallah II, carrying tons of weapons and ammunition intended for the Syrian armed opposition. Official security sources said that Lutfallah II was the fifth ship that was smuggling weapons to Syrian oppositionists in Lebanon. But it was the first ship that Lebanese authorities have caught.
The armed presence is not limited to the Bekaa and the North — the two areas adjacent to Syria and through which the displaced Syrians come to Lebanon. On May 23, there was a clash between the army and gunmen in Caracas Street at the heart of Beirut. The clash lasted for eight hours during which period two people were killed. Subsequent official reports said they were Syrians belonging to a jihadist organization that has established a center in the heart of Beirut.
These are just a few examples out of hundreds that have been reported by the government and the media. These examples reflect how much the Lebanese are worried about the phenomenon of individual security matters and organized armed groups, which have accompanied the Syrian displacement to Lebanon. Most organized Syrian armed groups are jihadists, be they Syrians or from other nationalities. They have infiltrated Lebanon under civilian cover, which raises worries about their plans.
Many Lebanese officials have begun raising questions about this matter, especially after clear demarcation lines separating the fighting parties have appeared in the Syrian civil war. This raises the question: Since both sides now have territories under their control, why are Syrian people moving to Lebanon?
Moreover, there is the financial and material motivation. The Lebanese government is unable to secure the necessary relief for the displaced. So it has appealed to foreign countries for an international donors conference that would provide grants and humanitarian aid. However, during last week’s cabinet meeting, Lebanese ministers said that some rich Gulf countries that are involved in the Syrian civil war told the Lebanese government that they are providing aid to the displaced directly — and not through the Lebanese government. The Lebanese government is concerned that this assistance includes financing for armed groups in Lebanon.
To illustrate that, a sociological study published last year on the conditions in Tripoli mentioned that there have been several clashes in Tripoli’s neighborhoods involving non-Lebanese fighters, including Syrians. The report said that they used modern rifles costing thousands of dollars each and that dozens of rounds, each costing at least one dollar, were fired every day. All that happened while the gunmen themselves live below the poverty line on less than two dollars a day!
Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at Al-Akhbar Lebanese newspaper and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station.