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Lebanon ‘cannot manage’ the influx of Syrian refugees

Sep 24,2014 - Last updated at Sep 24,2014

Lebanon is already the third battlefront in the war against the Islamic State (IS) and, like embattled Syria and Iraq, it has neither the political unity needed nor the material means to fight its battle.

Veteran analyst Marie Nassif-Debs said: “We have no president” because parliament cannot agree on a candidate. Its mandate finishes at the end of October, when there should be an election.

But deputies cannot agree on when to hold the poll.

“Without parliament, civil servants cannot be paid” and the administration could go on strike.

The military council — which decides on army operations against IS — “cannot take decisions unless all 24 ministers agree” on how to defend the country.

They disagree.

Lebanon needs weapons and ammunition, but French arms have not been delivered because the Saudis have not paid for them as promised and, apparently, the French did not agree on the list submitted by the Lebanese military due to concern that they could be used against Israel.

Weapons given to Lebanon by the US are not enough. US Hellfire missiles have not been used and are not useful in the sort of conflict being fought against IS.

Defence Minister Nouhad Mashnouk went to Moscow to discuss a deal for Russian arms but, she observed, the US “would not allow such arms” due to the rising conflict between the West and Russia over the Ukraine.

The Lebanese army is in the same position it found itself during the 2008 campaign against radical fundamentalists based in Nahr El Bared Palestinian camp in Tripoli.

It took months to defeat the radicals, it cost the lives of many soldiers and civilians, and fighting destroyed the camp.

It is estimated that 400 Lebanese from Tripoli have joined jihadist groups in Syria.

Since the conflict in Syria, a multiplicity of jihadist groups connected with those in Syria have risen in Tripoli, while the Sunni border town of Arsal has become a base for IS and official Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra.

These groups clashed with the Lebanese army last month and took 29 soldiers and policemen hostage.

Five Sunnis were freed, three soldiers executed (two were beheaded by IS and one was shot in the head by Jabhat) and 21 remain in the hands of their captors and are under cruel threat of death.

Their families, rightly, are putting great pressure on the divided Lebanese government to give in to the hostage-holders’ demand for the release of radical militants involved in terror attacks in the country.

Some of these men have been sentenced to hang for capital crimes.

If the government releases them, other soldiers could be abducted and further demands made of the government and country.

Environment Minister Mohammad Mashnouk said: “We could be blackmailed forever.”

Therefore, he stated, “the Cabinet’s position is to maintain unity and not accept blackmailing over the blood of our soldiers”.

He said a Qatari mediator, who suspended his efforts when the third soldier was killed by Nusra, is set to resume his efforts, and Turkey, which freed 46 hostages seized by IS in Iraq, could help.

Arsal, a small town of 35,000, now hosts 110,000 Syrian refugees.

Since unrest erupted in neighbouring Syria, Arsal has been a major conduit for arms, money and foreign fighters entering Syria.

The town’s population sympathises with the insurgents and is supportive of fundamentalists who use Arsal as their rear base and staging area for attacks on Syrian forces in the Qalamoun mountains range across the border.

The ongoing conflict with the army is over control of the mountainous frontier, which the jihadists want to capture before winter sets in.

Furthermore, Nassif-Debs, whose hometown is in the Christian Orthodox Koura region, said: “IS fighters are renting houses and flats in Christian and Druze areas where they feel they can better hide” among the population.

These covert operatives are poised to mount sabotage and murderous attacks within Lebanon to destabilise the country.

Nassif-Debs’ information was confirmed by a source close to Hizbollah, which has been the target of numerous suicide bombings in retaliation for Hizbollah’s efforts to fight insurgents alongside the Syrian army.

The smallest country granting sanctuary to refugees from Syria, Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, is under massive strain due to the influx.

In a report due to be published tomorrow, the environment ministry revealed that the number of UN registered refugees is 1,087. 

Additionally, Lebanon has received unregistered Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria, and Lebanese who resided in Syria but have returned home, making a total of 1.4 million, or 28.9 per cent of the total population.

By the end of 2014, the figure could be as high as 1.8 million. This increase reflects a population growth not expected until 2041 and “leads to a heavy burden on already fragile environmental resources in Lebanon”.

The presence of the refugees has increased Lebanon’s population density by 37 per cent, from 400 to 520 persons per square kilometre.

These figures do not include 350-400,000 middle class and wealthy Syrians who came before and after the conflict began in 2011, bought or rented accommodation, started businesses, and put their children in schools, observed Mashnouk during an interview with this correspondent.

These people are an asset to the economy, but still burden the environment with their presence.

Lebanon is overwhelmed by increases in solid waste, which is either dumped or burned, causing pollution of the land, groundwater and atmosphere, and creating health hazards.

Water sources are being depleted at an accelerating rate and the quality of water is deteriorating.

A severe shortage of water is expected through October and November — before the seasonal rains are set to come.

But there is no guarantee they will come.

Consumers are compelled to buy water from firms delivering in lorries which contribute to traffic jams in the cities, notably Beirut, already congested with vehicles.

Air pollution has been increased by rising levels of gases emitted by additional vehicles, residential heating plants and electricity production.

Mashnouk said Lebanon buys electricity from war-torn Syria at a cost of $150 million. But this is not enough: the country is afflicted by rolling power cuts.

When asked how Lebanon will cope once the World Food Programme (WFP) cuts refugee rations by 40 per cent due to lack of donor support, Mashnouk declared: “We cannot manage.”

He said that Prime Minister Tammam Salam is pressing the multitude of non-governmental organisations to coordinate their activities.

The only agency that is providing data on refugees is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

A critic of the government and the Lebanese system of governance said there is “no vision” and no planning for a future for the Syrian refugees and returnees.

The entire system — which depends on communal/sectarian “lords” — has to be replaced by a system that responds to the needs of the population rather than the demands of the “lords”.

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