CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — As the Syrian civil war rages on and people are senselessly killed, the conflict threatens not only Syria’s future but also that of its neighboring states. Lebanon especially has experienced acute challenges as 1 million Syrian refugees have fled to its borders.
As a result, the Lebanese population has grown 25% and Lebanon faces increasing stress on its political infrastructure.
Women and children make up 65% of the refuges and 20% are under the age of 4.
These refugees predominately live in host communities, rented accommodations, or informal tented settlements throughout Lebanon. UNICEF estimates that 2,000 of the refugees risk dying of malnutrition as a result of “poor hygiene, unsafe drinking water, diseases, lack of immunization and improper feeding practices of young children,” according to Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF’s representative in Beirut.
The United States has responded by providing $340 million in humanitarian assistance since the beginning of the Syrian conflict to support the needs of the refugees. With $30 million directed specifically at the communities that host the refugees. However, tolls on the state remain impressive. The World Bank estimates that real GDP will contract by 2.9% this year alone.
Additionally, the aids effect will be progressive and not immediately correct the sudden strain on Lebanon’s public infrastructure.
Lebanon is no stranger to conflict and political instability, experiencing a long civil war of its own between 1975 and 1990. That conflict involved heavy foreign intervention from Syria, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syrian troops maintained a presence in Lebanon from 1985 until 2005. They ended their 29-year stay only after the assignation of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri instigated pro and anti Syria rallies and the fall of the Beirut Government.
Today, Syrian affairs continue to influence domestic Lebanese politics. The March 14th coalition, which formed after the 2005 demonstrations, opposes the Assad regime in the current conflict. The March 8th coalition, another coalition formed after the 2005 demonstrations, supports Assad.
Despite their leanings, Lebanese leaders have vowed not to involve themselves in the conflict.
However, Hezbollah, a known terrorist group, has actively involved itself in Syria and supplied both troops and supplies to Assad. Their unilateral action has dragged Lebanon into the conflict and aggravated tensions within Lebanon’s own borders. The grassroots Lebanese Sunni community has responded by offering the Syrian rebels various forms of aid and assistance.
Additionally, their rising frustration has led to increased activity of al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups. For example, last week’s bombing in Bir Hassan targeting the Iranian Culture Center killed 10 people and wounded 120. Abdallah Azzam, a known al-Qaeda collaborator, claimed responsibly attack. The center was targeted because of Iran’s support for the Assad regime.
These fresh tensions come at a particularity critical time for the Lebanese state. Recently a new government was formed that includes equal representatives from both the March 8th and March 14th political coalitions, along with a third group of other political interests. This new fragile state faces a key test on May 25, 2014, when current President Sleiman’s term ends.
A peaceful transition to new leadership under a free and fair election process will strongly indicate that Lebanon can maintain stability through its current turmoil and work towards improving the life of its people and refugees.
To assist stability the United States has pledged $71 million in military aid the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). According to Lawrence Silverman, the Department of State’s acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, the LAF equally represents different portions of the Lebanese community and remains the strongest and most respected institution within the Lebanese state.
Through continued assistance of the LAF, the United States hopes to maintain political stability in Lebanon.
Both the influx of Syrian refugees and the involvement of Lebanese political groups in the Syrian conflict have increased tension within the Lebanese state.
Despite the United States humanitarian and military support for the country, many challenges remain for Lebanon. With increased humanitarian aid and proper military support, the Lebanese state can assist its refugee population and maintain governmental stability. Despite conflicts, Lebanon has demonstrated remarkable political resilience throughout its history and has the ability to once again emerge whole after domestic unrest.
– Martin Levy