An official from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces disclosed to Al-Monitor in Beirut that the rebels in Syria do not have a plan to resolve the issue of people fleeing into Lebanon. He pointed out that displaced Syrians in Lebanon currently number approximately 250,000, with only 175,000 officially registered. They reside in many different places: with Lebanese families with whom they share family ties; in public institutions; in schools; and some of them have rented housing and found simple occupations to earn a living.
He confirmed that the Lebanese government is not enforcing the law that requires illegal aliens be returned to their native country after being arrested, noting that failure to register as a refugee legally categorizes one as a displaced person.
The opposition official moves freely in Beirut and meets with politicians and figures from the Lebanese opposition forces. He of course shows his satisfaction with the fact that the Lebanese authorities have not placed a ceiling on the number of displaced Syrians allowed into Lebanon, contrary to Turkey and Jordan. This remains the case, despite demands made by Christian politicians — led by Energy Minister Gebran Bassil (the strongman in the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gen. Michel Aoun) and MP Sami Gemayel (the strongman in the Lebanese Phalange Party).
Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea had distanced himself from this issue, and a spokesman of his recently told Al-Monitor that Geagea refuses to exploit the terrible tragedy of the displaced Syrians in petty political calculations, and thus he refused further comment.
Sunni and Shiite leaders in Lebanon have turned their attention to the need for solidarity with displaced Syrians. However, some in the March 14 Alliance question the reasons behind Hezbollah’s posturing, whose secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, alleged that he had convinced his ally Bassil to oppose (in a manner which his rivals have attempted to portray as ‘prejudiced’) the influx of displaced persons, most of whom support the rebels. Meanwhile MP Gemayel is spontaneously taking a position which runs countercurrent to his party's traditional attitudes about border-crossing into Lebanon.
On the other hand, some from the March 8 Alliance accuse their opponents — especially the Sunnis in the Future Movement, the Islamic Group and the Salafists — of giving precedence to sectarian interests in their dealings with the Syrian situation over any other consideration.
The Syrian opposition official said it is possible that the number of displaced persons will surge from 250,000 to 500,000 in the event that heavy combat breaks out in Damascus. This would cause problems for Lebanon at a societal level, as it does not have the capacity to absorb throngs of people desperate for care, aid and security — things which even in the best of times the Lebanese authorities struggle to secure for their own poor citizens.
Some opponents of Hezbollah, who met with the Syrian opposition official, say that Hezbollah fears most the sectarian problems that could arise between its bases and the displaced Syrians. Palestinians living in the refugee camps are also a cause for concern, as they might join forces with Hezbollah’s opponents under certain circumstances.
However the Syrian opposition official stressed that concern over this matter is contained to certain affected localities. He emphasized that “the recent speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad guarantees more violence in the near future and subsequently more displacement to Lebanon and elsewhere. There will be a humanitarian tragedy and social disarray if the situation is not remedied by setting up camps near the border or by taking other similar measures. Large amounts of resources and facilities must be secured to provide medical care and basic supplies, which will require significant funding that is beyond the capacity of the Lebanese government.” The government has developed and ratified a contingency plan in this regard, but it has yet to begin actual operations.
The Syrian opposition official faced those who met with him, saying, “We, like you, do not have any hand in the issue of displaced persons, for we cannot control the movement of people in such difficult circumstances.” He referred to hypothetical solutions that would require international backing, such as creating an internationally protected safe zone for displaced persons within Syria. However this initiative could easily be scuppered by a Russian or Chinese veto in the UN Security Council. Moreover, Western countries are not very receptive to the idea, for they consider it a step that could drag them into a war in which they want no part.
Another idea is to expand the “security belt” (similar to the famous security belt Israel established in southern Lebanon before 2000), which the rebels established in collaboration with the Turks along the northern border of Syria. This refuge has attracted people away from crossing into Lebanon, noting that those who fled from Homs, Hama and their environs have all settled. However, violent developments in Damascus would force its people to flee to the Bekaa valley and Beirut, which is a mere 75 km from the Syrian capital.
The official hinted at a rationing of resources provided to the armed rebels in the Homs region, contributing to the stalemate that has characterized that area. He spoke of locations in Wadi al-Daif which, if overtaken by the rebels, would enable the residents of Homs and Hama to travel north more safely if they decided to flee that way.
Nonetheless, the picture he paints is a bleak one, saying, “I went to northern Syria and saw with my own eyes just how scarce the food supplies have become — it’s indescribable. Diesel fuel is non-existent and the cold has a fiercer bite than here in Lebanon. Power outages are commonplace, and thus heavy clothes and blankets have become the only source of warmth. When the weather does clear, warplanes tear through the sky and shell the region. Airpower spearheads the military machine, but what most vexes us is that it no longer makes international headlines. Before, a single plane taking off was important news. Today, devastating air strikes are barely newsworthy.
“Nevertheless,” he says with a certain swagger, “we don’t need anti-aircraft missiles, obtaining armor piercing weapons would be enough to finish the fight.”
In Beirut, the official from the National Coalition received some valuable advice, which he in turn relayed to those who could most benefit from it: “The solution lies with the United States. Explain your policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. We suggest that you stress to the Americans your support for the Arab Peace Initiative. Before you, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt vowed to uphold the Camp David Accords; ten days later, Hosni Mubarak fell.”
Elie Hajj writes on politics for An-Nahar, Lebanon. He previously wrote for Al-Anbaa (Kuwait) and the online paper Elaph.