Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Free Patriotic Movement

Update on Syrian refugees conditions and status in Lebanon

As in all data, Lebanese are not equipped to gather data, Not in matters of critical issues such as “How many Lebanese live in Lebanon”, How many people live in Lebanon, how many are jobless, what exactly is our deficit… and least of all

How many Syrian refuges have selected Lebanon as a harbour for security”

The UN registered Syrian refugees is about 1,250,000. The exact number is over 2 million or half our population.

The minister of education and minister of interior’s comments may have only been five days apart, but they reveal just how wide the gulf is within the government over how to manage Lebanon’s swelling Syrian refugee population. 

A very angry public backlash ensued as politicians from across the spectrum reassured citizens that they remained wholeheartedly against establishing camps

As the violence across the border morphed from a civilian led uprising to a full blown civil war and families began to flee the country en masse, NGOs and the United Nations became convinced that camps in Lebanon would be the easiest way to safely house and feed hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

But from the outset concerns were voiced by politicians and ordinary Lebanese about how long Syrians would stay if they had the opportunity to live in formal sites.

Fears were implicitly tied to the history of Palestinian refugees in the country, whose camps, built as temporary settlements 60 years ago, still stand today and are often branded as hubs of instability and militancy. Whatever their practical merit, camps for Syrian refugees have slipped down the political agenda and, in recent years, been largely dismissed.

published this Oct. 29, 2014

Children make up half the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon

Children make up half the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon

It came as something of a shock when Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas announced in mid-September that an agreement had been reached to build two pilot refugee camps on the border, one at the Masnaa crossing and the other at Abboudieh, a northern crossing.

However, this apparent political breakthrough was short lived.

A very angry public backlash ensued as politicians from across the spectrum reassured citizens that they remained wholeheartedly against establishing camps. Five days after the initial announcement, the ministry performed an effective U turn. A spokesperson for Derbas was rolled out to say that their construction was being “put on hold,” later clarifying that the two camps would not be built at all.

Executive sat down with figures across the political divide to try and wade through the apparent contradictions and confusion at the cabinet level. While the border sites have now been definitively ruled out, frantic deals are currently underway to secure fresh endorsements for camps inland as one of the most divisive refugee issues is dragged unceremoniously back to center stage.

At the heart of this sea-change lies one key variable: Arsal.

The Arsal crisis

“Arsal has been hijacked,” says Khalil Gebara, advisor to Nouhad Machnouk, interior minister and member of the Saad Hariri-led Future movement, who has been working alongside his coalition colleague Derbas to push the camps agenda.

In the worst spillover of violence since the beginning of the Syrian war, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and their rival Islamists, ISIS, teamed up to fight the Lebanese Army for control of the border town in August.

In the ensuing battle, some 12 civilians were killed and hundreds injured. (And how many soldiers were killed and injured?)

The militants took dozens of soldiers captive (how many exactly?) and have so far executed three.

Although the Islamists have been ostensibly pushed out of the town into the Qalamoun mountains, the Army believes that terrorist cells are still living among refugees in informal tented settlements (ITS) and raids are still commonplace.

“The Lebanese and some refugees are finding themselves trapped between the militants and the Army. That is a serious problem …We must act,” Gebara says. With the town virtually on lockdown, aid agencies and the UNHCR are also struggling to reach the refugees.

It is only these very particular security concerns in Arsal that have pushed the contentious camps debate back into the spotlight. 

“We are not talking about establishing several medium sized formal camps, like the initial plans of UNHCR and MOSA [Ministry of Social Affairs] from a couple of years ago. We are not talking about formalizing informal settlements … We are not trying to solve the whole refugee problem here. We are talking about something very specific. Today our priority is Arsal and the security threat. You need to ease the pressure on Arsal and one of the ways to do that is to reduce the number of refugees by at least half, so we propose to take 30,000 or 40,000 refugees and put them in camps,” Gebara explains.

Yet, despite vocal opposition, Gebara maintains that the U turn on the border sites was not down to political maneuverings, but rather to security and financial challenges.

After Derbas announced that he had managed to scrape together enough support within the cabinet for his pilot camps, a team of technical assessors from MOSA and the UNHCR traveled to the proposed sites. Their conclusions were not what the minister had hoped: as Masnaa was just a few kilometers from Syrian army positions, it was deemed too dangerous and would likely cost $10 million to keep 10,000 refugees safe. The Abboudieh site, meanwhile, was simply too small.

Political stalemate

Makram Malaeb, however, who worked as an advisor to Derbas at the time he spoke to Executive, admits that political maneuverings played a part in the collapse of the plan.

“What are the guarantees that [with the new camps] we are not disseminating terrorists among civilian populations in other villages?”

“There was political progress and then there was political backing away,” Malaeb says, cryptically. “At the crisis cell [which includes the prime minister, the MOSA and the interior and foreign affairs ministries], the decision was taken to establish these camps. Then there were some reservations at the cabinet level, so we withdrew the offer.”

The advisor refused to be drawn on exactly who had given a tentative nod to the plans and then withdrawn support, but the former Labor Minister Salim Jreissati says that his party, the Free Patriotic Movement, has remained vehemently against establishing camps, whether for Arsal or in general. The party holds two cabinet seats, but with its allies, the eight-strong bloc wields significant veto power.

The [informal Arsal] camps have effectively bred jihadists who are now fighting against the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese population, taking our soldiers hostage, and causing problems all along our borders … This is why we say we have no intention at all to create camps,” Jreissati says. “What are the guarantees that [with the new camps] we are not disseminating terrorists among civilian populations in other villages?”

Over the past few weeks, Machnouk has been engaged in determined consultations to try and win around FPM and Hezbollah leaders. While Gebara tells Executive that progress has been made, Jreissati says the meetings have not been positive and he does not envisage his party changing their official stance. He also slams Machnouk’s lack of combat experience, saying it contributed to his inability to meaningfully tackle the Arsal crisis.

He is an honest man, but he has no military experience. That is my problem [with him] … Hezbollah shares our point of view and our fears. They are fighting terrorists in Syria, they know about the whole issue. They are in the field. This is the difference between Machnouk and Hezbollah.”

Meanwhile, Machnouk’s advisor Gebara — without explicitly pointing his finger at the FPM or its allies — admits that he was frustrated with the inflexible attitude of many of the political elite toward camps.

“I really don’t understand this complete boycott of any discussion of camps. I might understand concerns about a general strategy to scatter camps all over Lebanon … But this [Arsal proposal] is not bringing in new people, it is simply moving people who are already here. So we are not changing demographics; the demography has already been changed,” he says, referring to widespread concerns that Syrians, like Palestinians, are mostly Sunni and that a prolonged stay in Lebanon could threaten the country’s unique religious coexistence, which sees power carefully divided along sectarian lines. 

Rabih Shibli, director of the Community Projects and Development Unit at the American University of Beirut, who has worked extensively with refugees and Lebanese host communities, says that he would be “extremely astonished” if the Future Movement’s ministries find backing for their project.

“To many Lebanese, the Palestinian question is a cause of much anxiety. The sectarian balance is very fragile and people feel conscious of that,” he says. “[Meanwhile] the political situation is extremely polarized … The only way [an agreement] will be possible is if [Machnouk] reaches a regional agreement with Hezbollah; everything in Lebanon has a regional link. Without this, the stalemate will continue.”

NGO response

While the political debate rumbles on, aid agencies say they are on standby to begin construction as soon as an agreement is reached for Arsal. Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for UNHCR, says that the body “stands ready” to act.

By amassing several thousand families in one space, the sites would also offer more logistically manageable mechanisms of distributing aid

Niamh Murnaghan, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an organization that works closely with shelter projects for refugees, also reiterates that most NGOs “will have preparedness plans in place” in the event of a breakthrough. But she also believes that “there is still significant resistance to camps in Lebanon. I would say that if there is an agreement, it is likely to be carefully framed to be limited to just the Arsal situation. I don’t yet see the formalizing of ITS or trying to group refugees more together.”

Camps could be a cheaper way to manage the refugee population, the NRC’s Camp Management Advisor Kristin Vestrheim says, as within formal sites “you can access so many more, and you can particularly reach the most vulnerable who often cost more to reach.”

Official settlements would be built on government land, meaning residents would have so called ‘security of tenure’, protecting them from the whims of landlords, who currently have the right to evict refugees from informal outposts.

By amassing several thousand families in one space, the sites would also offer more logistically manageable mechanisms of distributing aid, and enable the monitoring of women and children who could be at risk of sexual exploitation.

No room at the inn?

While a virtual stalemate on camps for those in Arsal persists and constructing sites for refugees across the board continues to be dismissed out of hand by many, the government has turned to a series of alternative draconian measures to stem the flow from Syria.

And whatever the disputes about camps, when it comes to these fresh plans to slice the refugee numbers, it seems there is support across party lines.

Malaeb, the advisor to Derbas, tells Executive that the current government’s overarching refugee strategy is twofold: to significantly reduce the numbers of Syrians entering Lebanon and to properly manage those who are here. “At least one of those plans seems to be working,” he says.

Malaeb was referring to a proposal signed off in February — but only made public when it began in August — to drastically reduce the numbers entering through Lebanon’s four official borders. Strict new measures mean that people will only be allowed in if they can prove the following: they are using Lebanon to transit to another country; they are in need of medical treatment; or they have the financial means to support themselves. All others are being turned away.

We are of the opinion that Lebanon cannot host any more refugees. Since we have a quarter of our population, or even 30 percent, as Syrian refugees and considering that Jordan and Turkey have effectively closed their borders, we should be able to close ours if we choose,” Malaeb says.

According to a source at General Security, the average number of people crossing the Masnaa border dropped by roughly three quarters during September, with men between 16 and 30 being the most likely to be turned away.

The policy has alarmed human rights observers, but Malaeb argues that statistics show the number of Syrians crossing into the country has been decreasing significantly since November of last year. He also emphasizes that restrictions would be eased in the event of a major outbreak of violence near the border.

We believe that most people who want to flee violence [to Lebanon] have already fled.”

In tandem with the harsh restrictions, the Interior Ministry has announced plans to strip Syrians of their refugee status if they cross the border several times in a month, hoping to catch out those who the ministry says are supported by the Lebanese state and the UN, but are still able to partially work and live inside Syria.

Although Gebara says the policy is directed at Syrian business people accused of leeching off the state, the move will likely also bar refugees who take regular trips to Damascus to visit family or check on property.

A widespread legalizing of refugees’ permits has also taken place in recent months.

It is a proposal that the Interior Ministry says is designed to help refugees who fear being stopped by the police with expired papers, but Malaeb concedes that the architects of the scheme hope it will also encourage Syrians to return home voluntarily, easing pressure across the country and particularly in Arsal.

These proposals to incentivize Syrians to return, and in some cases force them out, appear to represent the government’s way of tackling the refugee crisis while the camps stalemate persists. And it is here, if on little else, that the FPM and Future parties appear united.

Jressati tells Executive: “Our position is that since there are large areas in Syria that are completely secure and that aren’t affected by war … the idea would be for [refugees] to return to villages and cities that haven’t been completely destroyed.”

“All of the political factions that once accused us of racism have now come to us and say we were right at the time to ask for stricter regulation of this enormous influx of refugees coming into our country. That is not a racist position. That is the only solution.”

Catastrophic Constitutional Vacuum in Lebanon? Lebanese don’t care...

When Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s term ended on May 25, he left a vacuum that some fear could further erode the influence of Christians in a turbulent region consumed with sectarian infighting.

 of FoxNews.com published this June 2, 2014

lebanonpres.jpg

Sleiman’s  (tacit “constitutional”) post has traditionally been held by a Christian, in the delicate sectarian balance of a nation made up of (19 officially recognized religious sects).

Currently, the vast majority of the population of Shiite Muslims is supported by Iran. The Sunni Muslims are mainly backed by Saudi Arabia.

Five attempts by parliament to reach a deal to fill the presidency have failed, leaving an impasse that not only exacerbates political and social polarization in the country, but also weakens the Christian community in the Middle East, where Christian presence is rapidly disappearing.

“With Lebanon you can never tell when the combination of internal struggle and external regional struggle will fuse together in a combustible way,” says New York University Middle East expert Mohamad Bazzi.

“The more instability and insecurity in Lebanon, the more likely there will be violence in car bombs and potentially worse. The Lebanese Christians are also watching the fate of fellow Christians in Syria, the violence against them from Sunni jihadists.”

David Hale, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, urged Lebanon to seize the opportunity “to elect a new president without allowing any other country to dictate the results.” (And what was the purpose of Kerry’s visit to Lebanon, coinciding with election in Syria?)

The Lebanese people need leadership “made in Lebanon,” he said. “The price of a power is “simply too high. The United States supports this Lebanese process.”

As part of the Taif Agreement, a national reconciliation accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Maronite Christians, who had historically held the presidency and appointed the government, maintained the position of head of state but were forced to hand over the leadership of the government to the Sunnis.

The Christian president retains powers such as making recommendations for top military posts and the signing of international treaties, but he needs the prime minister’s cabinet approval. A Shiite always hold the position of speaker of parliament. (Nabih Berri, a civil war warlord, has been holding that post for 3 decades now)

This power-sharing arrangement, based on demographics in 1989, forced the Christians, who had historically been in charge of appointing the country’s prime minister, to accept that they had lost their majority to the Muslims after 1 million Lebanese, mostly Christians, emigrated during Lebanon’s civil war.

“The Lebanese Christians are also watching the fate of fellow Christians in Syria, the violence against them from Sunni jihadists,” says Bazzi, explaining why many Christians in Lebanon and Syria have chosen to side with Hezbollah by fighting on the side of the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.

“Christian communities like historic Maaloula have been decimated by al-Nusra and other Sunni militants. For the Christians the Assad regime is the best worst option because at least Assad won’t want to eliminate the Christians.”

Hezbollah and its Christian political allies hold more than one-third (how about more than half?) of the cabinet seats of the Lebanese government. This consolidation of power potentially gives them the ability to overthrow the government. Lebanon has already lost core components of statehood to Hezbollah, which brazenly follows its own military and foreign policy.

Hezbollah’s political camp has boycotted parliamentary sessions to elect the president, claiming that they want a “consensus candidate” rather than the “provocative candidate” (another warlord Samir Geaja who served 11 years of a prison term) the Mustakbal Sunnis want.

Among a field of potential Christian leaders who seek the presidency are heavy-hitters from rival camps. Samir Geagea heads the Lebanese Forces, one of 12 parties that belong to March 14, an alliance of  Christian militia groups and the Saudi-backed Sunni Future Movement, based on the date of a massive rally that pressured Syria to end its occupation of Syria. (It was the Tayyar movement of Gen. Michel Aoun that brought this massive rally)

Of the candidates, he is the most outspoken critic of Hezbollah, running on a platform of independence from Iranian and Syrian interference (but not from independence of Israel and the USA)

Geagea’s main rival is Gen. Michel Aoun, who leads the Free Patriotic Movement that is part of the March 8 alliance (the date of a huge pro-Hezbollah demonstration), an Iran-Syrian-backed coalition of Hezbollah, Amal, another Shiite militia whose leader is Nabih Berri, the current speaker of parliament. March 14 accuses Aoun of being a stooge for Hezbollah.

“Difficulty at filling the post of head of state, which takes a two-thirds majority in parliament, is not new to Lebanon,” says popular Lebanese Christian politician Ziyad Baroud, who served as minister of interior and municipalities for two consecutive governments.

Despite sectarian problems facing Lebanon, Baroud believes that moderate Christians, Druze and Sunni and Shiite Muslims can work together to build a democratic country (if the political climate around Lebanon permit it?)

“Christians play a role of moderation in Lebanon,” according to Baroud, who hopes the current presidential vacuum leads to the selection of a leader who will work to unify the nation. “At a time when there are major problems in the region, it is good timing for Lebanon to offer an example of living together in peaceful coexistence. Christians, more than any other community, have historical responsibility to carry this into the future. 

Lebanon’s presidential crisis of today comes with tremendous internal and external pressures.

Over the past year, Lebanese Sunni jihadis and their rivals Hezbollah have been battling each other in Syria, and the violence has spilled over into Lebanon with at least 16 car bombs and a spate of assassinations. Compounding this unrest are the more than 1 million refugees, mostly Sunni, from the civil war in Syria.

The refugees have increased Lebanon’s population by close to 25% (how about 40%?), creating social pressures and altering the sectarian balance in the small nation. “Try to imagine the United States or France suddenly ending up with an additional 25 percent of their population to cope with, “ says Baroud. “When you add it to the Palestinian refugees, you can imagine what is the impact on this country.”

Staying out of the Syrian civil war is arguably the most critical challenge for Lebanon. “The proxy war that the Saudis (backed by the US and western European States) and Iranians are playing in Syria has unleashed forces that they cannot completely control, both in Syria and the broader region,” says Mohamad Bazzi, who points out that the rival Muslim powers are deeply involved in promoting their agendas in Lebanon.

“The Saudis and Iranians are crafty and can instigate things, but they cannot always control it. When the genie is out of the bottle, you might not be able to put it back in,” Bazzi warns. “That is the case of Syria and the potential danger for Lebanon.”

It may be weeks, even months, until a president takes office in one of the most challenging political environments on Earth and dangerous, too.

There is a long list of assassinated Lebanese political figures — from mayors to prime ministers to presidents. “I don’t have fear,” says Baroud. “The fact that we are still in Lebanon and feel something can be done is what matters. It is not about rational thinking, it is about feelings.”

(And what are these feeling? Of utter disgust of this pseudo State?)

Note: Those parties who refuse to elect Gen. Michel Aoun (leader of the far largest Christian block in the Parliament) have been hinting that Hezbollah (ally to Aoun movement) is blocking an election of a President in order to reform the Taef Agreement and have the Shiaa be represented politically as constituting the third of the population (this sect is actually 50% of the population).

Hassa Nasr Allah said in his recent speech that it was the French who suggested this reform a few years ago, but Hezbollah has no intention of demanding such kind of power sharing.


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