Posted by Guest on June 15, 2017 in Blog

By Sarah Decker

When discussing the Syrian refugee crisis, we often hear about the strain on economies in the European Union, like Greece and Germany, the imagined terror threats associated with these incoming populations, or even legislation designed to halt their migration, such as the Trump Administration’s Travel Ban. Yet the media very rarely mentions the challenges faced by the people, government, and institutions of the country hosting the world’s largest number of Syrian refugees: Lebanon.

With a population of approximately four million people, Lebanon is currently hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees, making one third of Lebanon Syrian – the equivalent of all of Canada and half of Mexico entering the United States in just five years. The impact – economically, socially, and geopolitically  –  has been staggering.

A panel consisting of three experts on Lebanese security and stability participated in a congressional briefing this past Tuesday held by the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL). ATFL is a non-profit organization composed of Americans of Lebanese heritage focused on educating Americans on the importance of strengthening the U.S.- Lebanese relationship. The discussion focused on the Lebanese security environment and the pressures faced by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. 

The panel included Mr. Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who is frequently consulted by governments and the private sector, appearing regularly on networks including CNN, BBC News, and Al-Jazeera; Ms. Leslie Touma, security expert and executive director of ATFL; and The Honorable Edward Gabriel, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Visiting Fellow at the CSIS, and president and CEO of ATFL. Gabriel also serves on AAI’s Board of Directors. 

During the briefing, the three panelists discussed the findings of their recent trip to Lebanon, where they met with members of the U.S. Embassy, the UNHCR, the LAF, and religious and political leaders, including the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament. From their visit, the panelists concluded that two institutions in Lebanon operate successfully: the LAF and the Central Bank. As stated by Gabriel, these two institutions “are holding up the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and stability of the entire country.” 

According to Nerguizian, “the Syrian Civil War and the Lebanon-Syrian insecurity nexus complicate and inform every aspect of the sectarian and factional composition of Lebanon.”

The pressure of Syrian refugees on the populous is driving wages down, with 52% of working refugees earning less than $2 a day. The impact on job creation has set the debt to GDP ratio at over 150%, effectively crippling the Lebanese economy. This has left the Central Bank the cornerstone of Lebanon’s financial stability, with transfers from the banking sector representing 12-15% of GDP.

In addition to the economic strain, the influx of Syrian refugees has also sent shock waves through the social structure of Lebanese society, disrupting a delicate balance of religious diversity post-Civil War. 90% of Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslim, allowing for a potential demographic tilt. In a country whose political power sharing is based on a confessional system, this has the potential for major political repercussions. The political divisions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are further emphasized by what Nerguizian calls the groups’ “diametrically opposing views” tied to the Syrian Civil War.

Gabriel urged the audience to recognize the importance of supporting Lebanon through enhanced U.S. cooperation: “Lebanon cannot continue to absorb this kind of pressure." 

This would involve detailed coordination between the U.S. Congress and Senate and the Lebanese banking sector in order to ensure that any economic sanctions are informed and strategic in order to avoid causing serious financial problems in Lebanon. The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 (H.R.2297) is a bill that would impose sanctions on foreign financial institutions that engage in transactions or money laundering on behalf of Hezbollah or its agents. The bill is currently undergoing the drafting process, with a series of 2017 amendments using a list published by the U.S. Treasury of approximately 100 Hezbollah affiliated organizations and personalities. The 2017 amendments are aimed specifically at targeting all Lebanese political groups that have a strong alliance with Hezbollah, with the new addition of the Amal Movement. 

In addition to urging continued U.S. support for the LAF and the Central Bank of Lebanon, the panelists advocated for a more refined approach to counter-terrorism that avoids tactics such as sanctions, including the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, that are informed by extreme generalities. For example, Touma described how attempting to target Hezbollah with this bill could cause a mass economic downturn. This isolates Shi’a Muslims, one third of Lebanon’s population, because Hezbollah is indirectly intertwined with many aspects of Lebanese economic, social, and political structures. A more refined and targeted approach is required, advised by Lebanon’s internal perspective.

For this reason, the U.S. must work tangentially with the LAF because as a national army, the LAF has support across Lebanon’s cleavages and sectarian lines, able to “talk Hezbollah down from escalation” according to Nerguizian. In addition, the U.S. has the opportunity to work alongside Lebanon’s Central Bank to perform sanctions against Hezbollah carefully and correctly.

On the frontline in the fight against ISIL, the LAF is instrumental to the success of the U.S.-led "war on terror." In order to conduct successful counter-terrorism efforts in the Levant region, it is critical to address the security concerns faced by Lebanon, namely the social dimensions of the refugee crisis, the financial strain placed on the Lebanese job market, and the need for additional connectivity between the U.S. and the LAF.

See AAI’s Lebanon Issue Brief for more information.

Sarah Decker is a 2017 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.