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Hezbollah’s Refugee Quandary

MAJDAL ANJAR, LEBANON – NOVEMBER 12: A displaced Syrian child is viewed
in a makeshift camp for Syrian refugees only miles from the border with Syria in the Bekaa Valley on November 12, 2013 in Majdal Anjar, Lebanon. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Anti-Refugee Campaign Has Disastrous Consequences

by Hanin Ghaddar*
While the Lebanese army was raiding the Lebanese town Ersal, where more than seventy thousand Syrian refugees reside, an anti-Syrian refugees campaign was in the making, adding fuel to the fire. This all culminated with the burning of two refugee camps in the Bekaa – with hundreds of tents, and an increased political pressure to send the refugees back to Syria. Two days later, leaked photos made waves in Lebanon, as they showed that ten of the arrested refugees died under torture while detained by the Lebanese army. While all of this pressure is building to terrify the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah is now calling the Lebanese government to coordinate with the Syrian regime to facilitate the return of the refugees to Syria.
It is already extremely difficult to be a refugee in Lebanon, and most of the Syrian refugees hope everyday they could be back to their homes and normal lives. They only came to Lebanon because an allegedly Lebanese party – Hezbollah – decided to go and lead the pro-regime war in Syria. Most of the towns and cities Hezbollah had raided and evacuated are located along or near the Lebanese border. As a result, many of the Syrians living in these town and villages fled to Lebanon to seek refuge from Hezbollah and regime forces.
Now Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies are heightening the anti-refugees narrative that blames the refugees for all the ailments Lebanon is suffering from, such as unemployment, water crisis, political instability, and even the trash crisis. Now many Lebanese are falling into the “blame the refugees” rhetoric and the cry for refugees to go back home has intensified. Racist behavior against Syrians has increased, last of which was the horrifying burning of the camps.  
The Syrian refugees cannot go anywhere, of course. Hezbollah has made sure that their towns from Qalamoun to Qussair and Homs are no longer “home.” With the demographic changes that Iran has been pushing for the past four years in Syria – mainly within the land corridor linking the coast to the Lebanese border – Hezbollah on the ground took over the refugees’ houses and properties, and brought in Shia families from Iraq and other parts of Syria to reside in these properties. In some cases, Hezbollah got the Syrian regime to forge real-estate documents to make sure the refugees cannot claim their homes in case they managed to go back.
The refugees cannot go back. Hezbollah has made sure of it. But the refugees are today Hezbollah’s problem in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s dilemma is tricky. They don’t want the refugees to go back because their towns are too strategic for Iran, and they also don’t want them in Lebanon because of the demographic and security threat.
Most of these refugees are Sunnis, causing a demographic imbalance in Lebanon, and making both the Shia and the Christians feel threatened.
But the problem for Hezbollah is beyond that. As the fight against ISIS intensifies in Syria, and as Hezbollah is marching its Shia militias to take over ISIS territories, Hezbollah fears that ISIS militants and leadership will reciprocate in Lebanon. And although the Syrian refugees have so far been immune to ISIS propaganda, you only need a tiny percentage of angry young men to cause serious damage. Hezbollah is worried that ISIS might take advantage of this small furious group of young Syria refugees to act against Hezbollah. The logical solution to this security threat to Lebanon is of course for Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, allow the refugees to go back home, and mind their own business.
This, of course, is not going to happen, because to Hezbollah, it is never about Lebanon. It’s about Iran and what Iran wants. So, the Syrian refugees have to suffer worse conditions in Lebanon now and be pressured enough to realize that living under Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Hezbollah’s control in Syria is much better than staying in Lebanon. They will then accept Hezbollah’s conditions to return, but not to their houses, but where Hezbollah wants them to be. That’s been Hezbollah’s plan for the refugees from the beginning, and now that the take-over of ISIS territories is taking place, the refugees in Lebanon should be dealt with.

Syrian refugees search for their remaining belongings amid the burnt tents after a fire at a Syrian refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (Getty)
Syrian refugees search for their remaining belongings amid the burnt tents after a fire at a Syrian refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (Getty)

Right after the Ersal raid, which resulted in the arrest of around four hundred Syrian refugees, Hezbollah’s Secretary General came out to congratulate the Lebanese army and called the Lebanese government to start coordinating with the Syrian government to facilitate the return of the Syrian refugees to Syria.
It is very clear that Lebanon will be seeing more terrifying conditions for the refugees, and it is also obvious that the political pressure on the Lebanese government to do as Hezbollah asks will also intensify in the coming weeks. There will be some resistance by some Lebanese politicians, and the government might not comply after all, but the pressure will be real. 
The repercussion of this is going to be huge, not only on the refugees, but also on Lebanon. Aggressive action often results in aggressive reaction. The Syrian refugees have been remarkably patient and calm in the face of racism and antagonism. But it is only normal if they turn to violence to defend themselves, especially if they were forced to go back to Assad’s brutality. That’s how ISIS and Al-Nusra were empowered. Helpless and marginalized Free Syrian Army fighters reached a level of desperation where they had only two options: death or Islamist factions.
But that’s not it. In the eventual war between Hezbollah and Israel – whether it starts in Syria or Lebanon – the South of Lebanon and its Shia towns of Bekaa will not be spared. Hundreds of thousands of Shia refugees will try to flee to seek refuge in other parts of Lebanon, or maybe Syria (where Hezbollah and the Syrian regime are in control). Imagine the scenario where Syrian refugees and Shia refugees will have to share resources and space. The sectarian rhetoric against the Syrian refugees is probably going to back fire against the Shia refugees, and the sectarian tension will probably lead to serious clashes.
When all the Syrian refugees are considered potential terrorists, all the Shia will be considered possible Hezbollah members. When all the Syrian refugees are blamed for Lebanon’s difficulties, all the Shia will be blamed for the upcoming wars and problems. When Hezbollah decides to turn on the hatred campaign against the Syrian refugees, they will have to expect the same against the Shia when they become refugees. You cannot create a monster and be safe from it. Of course Hezbollah knows this, but it seems that the repercussions against the Lebanese Shia or Lebanon in general are not a priority for the Party of God.
The refugees do want to go back home, but they can’t go back if Hezbollah is in Syria, or if Assad is in Damascus, and they do not trust Hezbollah’s guarantees. So, if Hezbollah’s Lebanese allies, mainly the head of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil, who has been the spearhead of the campaign, wants the refugees back in Syria, then he will have to simply redirect his efforts to convince his allies in Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria. Otherwise, the ramifications are going to be seriously ruthless on Lebanon and the Lebanese.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute

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