Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

About face

Lebanon requests aid for Syrian refugees after calls made by Hizbullah’s Nasrallah. But can the country resolve its own internal political divisions? Andrew Bossone reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah made surprising comments in a speech marking the end of the Shia holiday of Ashoura — that Lebanon should provide assistance for Syrian refugees. If the call is honoured, it could help diffuse sectarian tension in the country, and improve the long-term prospects for peace in both Syria and Lebanon.

“We should deal with the Syrian refugees in a purely humanitarian manner and not politicise it. Refugee families should be taken care of no matter what their political background is,” Nasrallah said.

Less surprising were his statements on a political solution in Syria, echoing the position of President Bashar Al-Assad and his allies, and even those of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, although neither Assad nor opposition groups are willing to compromise on the most important demand, that Al-Assad himself leave power.

Nasrallah’s call paved the way for the Lebanese government to take an official stance on the issue of refugees, breaking from its previous position of disengagement in all matters related to Syria. Lebanon has not signed onto UN Refugee Convention, thus does not accept responsibility regarding refugees, leaving their care solely in the hands of the United Nations with minimal oversight from the Lebanese High Relief Commission. 

Now a task force will be formed from the Ministry of Interior, the Lebanese army, the Internal Security Forces, General Security and State Security to create a security plan for refugees. The decision is what Ninette Kelley, representative of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, called “the first concrete plan” Lebanon had made to the international community. Lebanon had only allowed refugees who crossed at official border points to stay in the country, but some 30 per cent of the 170,000 Syrian refugees crossed elsewhere. Now the government will join UNHCR and dozens of international and local organisations in registering refugees. 

“Initially the government jointly registered Syrian refugees with UNHCR through its High Relief Commission. It stopped in 2011, as the numbers became larger due to insufficient capacity,” Kelley said.

Yet there’s no guarantee for Syrians that they will remain safe in Lebanon, or have greater rights. It will also be a difficult task to control the street. Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia are high. Hizbullah doesn’t have much sway over its political coalition, particularly those in the camps of Walid Jumblatt and Michele Aoun. When the Lebanese government made the announcement it would officially keep the border open for refugees and requested $180 million to support them, six ministers from Hizbullah’s 8 March alliance — all from MP Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc — opposed the idea.

Meanwhile, at the start of Ashoura, Nasrallah said that Hizbullah was ready to hold national dialogue sessions without preconditions with his 14 March opponents: “Political dialogue is the way forward to resolve political, social and national issues in Lebanon,” Nasrallah stated. But the national dialogue has not happened yet, as March 14 continues a boycott of government meetings since October, following the assassination of Brigadier General Wissam Al-Hassan.

The only possibility to hinges on settling a voter law with elections on the horizon. Politicians are divided on revising Lebanon’s election laws that date to 1960 even though the cabinet had agreed to reduce the number of electoral districts and make representation closer to proportionality. 

“The 14 March coalition is ready to end its boycott of the government in order to choose a new electoral law if the subcommittee looking into it fails to reach a consensus,” said Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea at a press conference.

It doesn’t seem the coalition is ready to have any serious dialogue to make amends with its political opponents though, and without serious negotiations, Lebanon, like Syria, will remain in a stalemate.

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