NEW YORK — Leading a religious freedom event at the United Nations on Monday, President Donald Trump echoed America's founding fathers in asserting that “no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.”
Behind the scenes, however, his administration is under growing pressure to take sides in the Middle East's sectarian strife.
Lebanese Christian groups are increasingly worried that their hard-won position in the country is under threat from an influx of Syrians that could permanently alter the balance of power. With more than 1.5 million refugees draining the tiny country's resources, memories are still fresh of the 15-year civil war that was sparked in part by Lebanon's inability to absorb an influx of mostly Muslim Palestinian refugees.
This June, Maronite Catholic bishops from around the world gathered near Beirut to urge the international community to help facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and lift the “heavy burden” that Lebanon faces disproportionately. The return of the refugees, they added, would help preserve Lebanon’s history, heritage and culture.
Their allies in the United States are drawing solace from Trump's disinterest in toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and from his close ties with leading Christian figures. They've made much of recent comments from Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, which appeared less definitive than previous US statements ruling out a quick return of Syrian refugees.
“What we’re trying to do with the Syrian refugees is have people be able to go back to their own countries,” Brownback told Lebanon's MTV channel at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) leadership conference in Washington earlier this month. “That’s part of what happened at this place two years ago, when the vice president announced we were going to invest in northern Iraq to be able to get Iraqi Christians and Yazidis to be able to move back into Iraq. We support that same philosophy in Syria, where Syrian refugees [will] be able to go back to Syria.”
IDC began lobbying for an “international response to the Syrian displaced crisis in Lebanon” in the second quarter of this year.
“I think we are seeing that US officials understand that the situation in Lebanon cannot remain as it is,” IDC President Toufic Baaklini, a Lebanese-American, told Al-Monitor in an emailed statement. “It is estimated that there are over two million Syrians in Lebanon. That is the highest proportional displaced population in world. We should not hold Lebanon hostage to the politics of Syria.”
But others caution against trading the human rights of one group for the perceived survival of another.
“No refugee should be forced back to a war zone,” said Erica Hanichak, the government relations director at Americans for a Free Syria, which lobbies for sanctions against Assad. On-the-ground reporting from the Carnegie Middle East Center last year makes it clear: "Refugees are extremely wary about returning to Syria before a comprehensive settlement can create better conditions for a return. Their justifications for this reluctance challenge those in Lebanon and Jordan who argue that a return to Syria is possible today. Returning now could have highly negative, indeed potentially fatal, consequences for refugees."
The situation is complicated by the Trump administration's shifting priorities on Syria.
The president himself has made clear his priority in Syria was defeating the Islamic State. He announced the withdrawal of US troops and the suspension of $230 million in reconstruction funding for areas freed from Assad last year.
And on Monday, the State Department applauded Russia and Turkey for helping negotiate the formation of a committee tasked with writing a new constitution as the prelude to new elections in Syria. "While much work remains to be done," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, "this is an encouraging step toward reaching a political solution to the Syrian conflict."
At the same time, administration officials remain distrustful of Assad.
In an interview with Emirati newspaper The National in April, US envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn said refugees would be returning to the “same killing machine” that forced them out. “People were chased from their homes by a regime that terrorized them and continues to terrorize them,” he said.
As for Brownback, he insisted in a brief interview with Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the UN religious freedom event that he was not announcing any change of policy with regard to Syrian refugees.
“In general the United States supports the position that refugees should not have to leave their home country. They should be allowed to resettle in their home country. And that's a generic position that we support,” Brownback said. “What we've added to that in this administration is that we've started to put resources in place to help people return to their home country, like in northern Iraq, we've put money into rebuilding the area so that the Yazidis and Christians can go back to the areas [from which] they were driven out by [the Islamic State]. To my knowledge, that's one of the first times that's happened, where in the past we've said, refugees you should just resettle somewhere else that's safe.”
“The situation in Syria is not resolved yet, but it's another phase, and I think a number of people will be looking to see what can be done so that the refugees from Syria can go back,” he added. “But I'm not announcing new policy initiatives. What I'm just telling you is that's what we've done in recent times and I would hope that we would continue to do that, where we try to make it possible for the refugees to go back. But they've got to be able to go back safely.”
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