The Lebanese Paradox

While groaning under a flood of Syrian refugees, the Lebanese government is incapable of stopping the group responsible for the influx: Hezbollah.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An artist in Damascus puts the finishing touches on a painting of President Bashar Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Lebanese customs officials and policemen in charge of the official border crossing between Syria and Lebanon were recently issued a sweeping directive: to prevent entry of any additional Palestinian refugees into the country. Nor is Lebanon willing to absorb more Syrian citizens who are seeking asylum there, with the exception of special cases such as those who are victims of forced expulsion.

It seems that after absorbing some 1,100,000 refugees – constituting between a quarter and a third of its population – Lebanon has reached the limit. The newcomers are crowding into refugee camps, school buildings, cellars and uncompleted buildings all over the country. Not only does the tremendous financial burden create difficulties for the already-shaky government in Beirut – there is also a great fear of outbreaks of violence between Lebanese citizens and the refugees, and a concern that the concentrations of newcomers will serve as an incubator for the activity of terror organizations.

Last Friday, Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil warned of the chance of a war between Lebanese citizens and the new Syrian residents if steps are not taken to reduce the number of refugees. Bassil is demanding that the United Nations and the international community encourage the latter to return to Syria, instead of providing aid in the countries who have allowed them to enter.

At the same time Beirut is finding is difficult to implement its own policy of reducing the number of refugees. For example, the government decided to examine the status of those who have arrived since June 1, and to expel all those who do not meet certain criteria. A decision was made that anyone who visited Syria during his stay in Lebanon will not be let back into Lebanon, but that decision has yet to be implemented.

Moreover, suggestions by Prime Minister Tammam Salam to the effect that a Syrian refugee will not be able to work in Lebanon without a specific permit from the labor minister, and that Lebanese companies must prove that no more than 10 percent of their work force is composed of foreigners – are also not being implemented. At present any refugee can be employed, even without a work permit.

One of the paradoxes is that Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian army on Syrian territory, is one of the prominent causes for the tremendous influx in the number of refugees in Lebanon. The Saudi newspaper Al Watan recently reported that military sources in Lebanon have warned the government against continuing Hezbollah activity on Lebanese soil, and also called on it to force the Islamist organization to withdraw its forces from Syrian territory.

But the government in Beirut, which was formed after a painful political process, is incapable of doing that, nor is public criticism of Hezbollah activity in Syria powerful enough to change the strategy of the government, which is in any event dictated by Iran. For example, Hezbollah took control of the Lebanese border town of Tufail, which served as a crossing point for rebels and refugees, and sparked the flight of dozens of families to nearby towns. Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was ultimately to coordinate with Hezbolah the transfer of humanitarian assistance to residents of the town.

The other paradox is that Hezbollah is fighting against the forces of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, in Syria, and is thereby ostensibly serving not only the Assad regime, but also the interests of Washington, on the one hand, and on the other, those of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaida-affiliated group whose forces were expelled last week from all of Syria’s oil facilities.

The Syrian battlefield is not enough for Hezbollah, however. It has even sent “advisers” to help the Iraqi prime minister in his war against the Islamic State, which took control of the oil installations in Syria.

Washington is not impressed by the “assistance” being offered by Hezbollah, and there is a bill pending in Congress that is designed to impose additional economic sanctions against the Islamic movement. Among other things, commercial enterprises and banks will be forbidden to do business with it and with people whose names are on a detailed list composed by the U.S. administration; the U.S. secretary of the treasury will be required to report every six months on every national bank in every state that does business with Hezbollah; and all satellite companies that transmit the broadcasts of Hezbollah’s television station will be required to explain the nature of their cooperation with the organization.

The bill also mentions the need to investigate whether Hezbollah is involved in the drug trade: If so, it would be included on the list of crime organizations. The underlying supposition here is that the movement finances its activity by laundering money on a huge scale, and that the money comes from drug dealing, mainly in South America.

The proposed U.S. legislation is already causing a shake-up in banks in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a legitimate partner in the government. And despite the assertions of bank directors that they will follow the instructions of the central bank (which is subject to international law) – it is doubtful whether they can withstand the pressure of Hezbollah.

The U.S. administration is also applying pressure to the Gulf states, so that they will cooperate with the effort to dry up Hezbollah’s sources of funding, since some of the donations it receives arrive via banking pipelines in the Gulf.

Its military intervention outside of Lebanon also imposes a great military burden on Hezbollah. According to reports, the organization has begun to create special units for women and young volunteers, who undergo accelerated training in order to carry out noncombat missions in southern Lebanon and to replace the fighters who will be transferred to Syria.

Hezbollah’s activity in Syria is one of the reasons the United States did not send high-quality arms to the rebel militias, for fear that it would end up in the hands of Hezbollah. The result is that the Islamic group is not only fighting against the Free Syrian Army – but, by its very presence in Syria, it is also blocking the pipeline of supplies to the rebels from the West.

The question now is: Will the United States succeed in drying up Hezbollah’s sources of funding?