Lebanese prime minister departs from Saudi Arabia and arrives in France

The New York Times reports: Lebanon’s absent prime minister arrived in France on Saturday morning after two weeks in Saudi Arabia, a mysterious stay that touched off intense speculation that he was being held against his will.

The prime minister, Saad Hariri, who has dismissed the speculation but has not publicly explained the nature or length of his stay in Saudi Arabia, later met with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, at the Élysée Palace.

The office of Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, also said on Saturday on Twitter that the two leaders had spoken and that Mr. Hariri had said he would be in Lebanon for the country’s Independence Day holiday, which is Wednesday.

Mr. Hariri announced on Nov. 4 from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that he was stepping down as Lebanon’s prime minister, but officials in Lebanon have said that his departure would not take effect until he delivered his resignation in person in Beirut.

Mr. Hariri’s unexpected trip and resignation unsettled the Middle East, sparking a political crisis in Lebanon and even raising fears of war. Saudi Arabia was widely seen as pressuring Mr. Hariri to resign as part of its escalating regional feud with Iran and its effort to isolate Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that is part of Mr. Hariri’s coalition government.

Mr. Hariri, for his part, said he feared for his safety in Lebanon.

With European diplomats scrambling to defuse the crisis, France seized the role of mediator. France has strong ties to Lebanon, dating from the early 20th century, and to the Hariri family. Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, was close to former President Jacques Chirac. The father, also a prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in 2005. [Continue reading…]

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The upstart Saudi prince who’s throwing caution to the winds

The New York Times reports: With the tacit backing of his father, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince has established himself as the most powerful figure in the Arab world, rushing into confrontations on all sides at once.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of 11 princes in his royal family and nearly 200 members of the Saudi business elite, and has begun to take power from the kingdom’s conservative clerics. He has blockaded neighboring Qatar, accused Iran of acts of war and encouraged the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister. And in Yemen, his armed forces are fighting an Iranian-aligned faction in an intractable war that created a humanitarian crisis.

The crown prince has moved so quickly that American officials and others worry that he is destabilizing the region. Signs of potential blowback are growing.

Investors, nervous about his plans, have been moving money out of the kingdom. Prince Mohammed has sought to counter the capital flight by squeezing detainees and others to surrender assets. He has presented the arrests as a campaign against corruption, but his targets call it a shakedown, and he has turned for advice to a former Egyptian security chief who has been pilloried at home for brutality and graft.

Prince Mohammed’s supporters say he is simply taking the drastic measures needed to turn around the kingdom’s graft-ridden and oil-dependent economy while pushing back against Iranian aggression.

But analysts around the region debate whether the headlong rush might be driven more by a desire to consolidate power before a possible royal succession, desperation for cash to pay for his plans or simply unchecked ambition to put his stamp on the broader Middle East. And despite President Trump’s enthusiasm for the prince, some in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies say they fear that his impulsiveness could both set back his own goals and destabilize the region.

“He’s decided he doesn’t do anything cautiously,” said Philip Gordon, the White House Middle East coordinator under President Barack Obama. But, Mr. Gordon said, “if the crown prince alienates too many other princes and other pillars of the regime, pursues costly regional conflicts and scares off foreign investors, he could undermine the prospects for the very reforms he is trying to implement.”

The extrajudicial arrests have spooked investors enough, analysts say, to extinguish the prince’s plans for an public stock offering of Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, in New York or London next year. It had been a centerpiece of his overhaul. [Continue reading…]

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The prime minister of Lebanon’s unnerving interview

Thanassis Cambanis writes: In the Middle East, the parlor game of the moment is guessing whether Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister—or is it ex-prime minister?—is literally, or only figuratively, a prisoner of his Saudi patrons. In a stiff interview from an undisclosed location in Riyadh on Sunday, Hariri did little to allay concerns that he’s being held hostage by a foreign power that is now writing his speeches and seeking to use him to ignite a regional war. He insisted he was “free,” and would soon return to Lebanon. He said he wanted calm to prevail in any dispute with Hezbollah, the most influential party serving in his country’s government.

Since Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia last week and more or less disappeared from public life as a free head of state, rumors have swirled about his fate. On November 4, he delivered a stilted, forced-sounding resignation speech from Riyadh. Michael Aoun, Lebanon’s president, refused to accept the resignation, and Hezbollah—the target of the vituperative rhetoric in Hariri’s speech—deftly chose to stand above the fray, absolving Hariri of words that Hezbollah (and many others) believe were written by Hariri’s Saudi captors.

The bizarre quality of all this aside, the underlying matter is deadly serious. Saudi Arabia has embarked on another exponential escalation, one that may well sacrifice Lebanon as part of its reckless bid to confront Iran.

Foreign influence seeps through Middle Eastern politics, nowhere more endemically than Lebanon. Spies, militias, and heads of state, issue political directives and oversee military battles. Foreign powers have played malignant, pivotal roles in every conflict zone, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Libya. Lebanon, sadly, could come next. Even by the low standards of recent history, the saga of this past week beggars the imagination, unfolding with the imperial flair of colonial times—but with all the short-sighted recklessness that has characterized the missteps of the region’s declining powers. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s leadership talks up another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon

The Guardian reports: Israel’s political and military leadership appears to have concluded that a conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah is becoming increasingly likely, despite months of growing warnings that a third Lebanese war would be more dangerous and deadly than the last war in 2006.

The mounting tensions on the northern border with Syria and Lebanon have increased in recent months as Israel has recognised its assumption that Hezbollah – a key ally fighting with the Assad regime – would be chewed up in a protracted Syrian conflict is badly mistaken as the war has turned rapidly in Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

Instead the Iranian-backed group appears to be emerging from the Syrian war as a battle-hardened and largely conventional military force whose missiles have been heavily resupplied by Tehran despite dozens of Israeli airstrikes on convoys and depots.

Amid threats by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel would intervene rather than allow Iran or Iranian-backed groups to establish themselves on Israel’s border, the sense of growing risk of conflict has been given added impetus in the recent convergence of Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US rhetoric against Iran. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East is nearing an explosion

Robert Malley writes: Lebanon has long been a mirror for the broader Middle East. The region’s more powerful actors use it, variously, as a venue for their proxy wars, an arena in which to play out the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a testing ground for periodic bouts of Saudi-Iranian coexistence. It’s where the region wages its wars and brokers its temporary truces. This past week, like in so many others, the Middle East has not been kind to Lebanon.

The news came on November 4 in the form of three back-to-back developments in a mere 10 hours. First, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, announced his resignation. That he made the statement from Riyadh told much of the story; that he delivered it with the genuineness of one forced to read his own prison sentence told the rest. The decision was announced by the Lebanese prime minister but it was made in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, had reason to want it to happen. Saudi-Iranian tensions are rising and bin Salman is determined to depict Tehran as the source of all regional evils. For Hariri to preside over a government that includes Hezbollah fundamentally undercut that core message: It meant allowing one of Riyadh’s closest allies to cooperate with Tehran’s most loyal partner. Hariri as prime minister created the impression that coexistence with Hezbollah and by extension with Iran was possible; his departure is designed to erase any doubt. He was asked to assume the prime ministership a year ago, at a time when the goal was to inoculate Lebanon from Saudi-Iranian rivalry; with him gone, Lebanon now is fully exposed to it. It has joined the camp of Saudi Arabia’s enemies.

Act two was news that Saudi Arabia had intercepted a missile launched from Yemen and purportedly aimed at Riyadh’s airport. This was not the first missile that the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group enjoying Iranian and Hezbollah support, had fired at its northern neighbor, but its timing and unprecedented range could make it one of the more consequential. The extent of outside backing to the Houthis is a matter of some debate, though neither U.S. nor Saudi officials harbor any doubt that the dramatic progress in the rebel movement’s ballistic missile program could not have occurred without its two benefactors’ considerable training and help. Like Hariri in his act of self-immolation, Saudi officials quickly and publicly drew a direct line connecting the strike to Iran and Hezbollah; it was, they proclaimed, an act of war for which they held both responsible and to which they would respond. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia turned on Lebanon’s Hariri

Reuters reports: From the moment Saad al-Hariri’s plane touched down in Saudi Arabia on Friday Nov. 3, he was in for a surprise.

There was no line-up of Saudi princes or ministry officials, as would typically greet a prime minister on an official visit to King Salman, senior sources close to Hariri and top Lebanese political and security officials said. His phone was confiscated, and the next day he was forced to resign as prime minister in a statement broadcast by a Saudi-owned TV channel.

The move thrust Lebanon back to the forefront of a struggle that is reshaping the Middle East, between the conservative Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite revolutionary Iran.

Their rivalry has fueled conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where they back opposing sides, and now risks destabilizing Lebanon, where Saudi has long tried to weaken the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, Lebanon’s main political power and part of the ruling coalition.

Sources close to Hariri say Saudi Arabia has concluded that the prime minister – a long-time Saudi ally and son of late prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 – had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah. [Continue reading…]

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Saudis appear to have kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister Hariri

David Ignatius writes: Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri is being held by Saudi authorities under what Lebanese sources say amounts to house arrest in Riyadh, apparently as part of the Saudi campaign to squeeze Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

A startling account of Hariri’s forced detention was provided Friday by knowledgeable sources in Beirut. It offers important new evidence of the tactics used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to bolster his rule by mobilizing anti-Iran sentiment at home and abroad.

Rumors of the virtual kidnapping of Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last Saturday while in Saudi Arabia, have rocked the Arab world; Lebanese officials worry that MBS, as the 32-year-old crown prince is known, wants to force Lebanon into his confrontation with Iran. Some Lebanese analysts complain that the Saudis treat the Hariri family, who have been bankrolled by Riyadh for decades, almost as a wholly owned subsidiary. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon believes Saudi holds Hariri, demands his return

Reuters reports: Lebanon believes Saad al-Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia, from where he resigned as Lebanese prime minister, two top government officials in Beirut said, amid a deepening crisis pushing Lebanon onto the frontlines of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A third source, a senior politician close to Saudi-allied Hariri, said Saudi Arabia had ordered him to resign and put him under house arrest. A fourth source familiar with the situation said Saudi Arabia was controlling and limiting his movement.

In a televised statement indicating deep concern at Hariri’s situation, his Future Movement political party said his return home was necessary to uphold the Lebanese system, describing him as prime minister and a national leader.

Hariri’s resignation last Saturday, read out on television from Saudi Arabia, came as a shock even to his aides and further embroiled Beirut in a regional contest between Riyadh and Tehran.

Hariri’s exit fuelled wide speculation that the Sunni Muslim politician, long an ally of Riyadh, was coerced into stepping down by Saudi Arabia as it seeks to hit back against Iran and its Lebanese Shi‘ite ally, Hezbollah. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia orders its citizens out of Lebanon, raising fears of war

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon on Thursday, escalating a bewildering crisis between the two Arab nations and raising fears that it could lead to an economic crisis or even war.

The order came after Saudi Arabia had stepped up its condemnations of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that is the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, and asserted that Lebanon had effectively declared war on Saudi Arabia.

The developments plunged Lebanon into a state of national anxiety, with politicians, journalists and even parents picking up their children at school consumed with the question of what could come next.

While analysts said a war was unlikely — because Saudi Arabia was not capable of waging one and Israel did not want one now — they worried that with so many active conflicts in the region, any Saudi actions that raised the temperature increased the risk of an accidental conflagration.

“There are so many fuses, so little communication, so many risks of something exploding, that there’s little chance of something not going wrong,” said Robert Malley, the former director of Middle East policy in the Obama White House and now vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group. “Everything needs to go right to maintain calm.”

The backdrop to the crisis was a series of steps by Saudi Arabia in recent days to confront its ascendant regional rival, Iran, and the surprise arrests of about 200 Saudis, including 11 princes, in what the government describes as an anti-corruption campaign but which critics see as a consolidation of power by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Lebanon had already been drawn into the crisis in two ways: After a rocket was fired from Yemen at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday, Saudi officials accused Hezbollah and Iran of aiding in the attack. And they declared that the attack amounted to a declaration of war by Lebanon, a leap given that the weak Lebanese state does not control Hezbollah.

At the same time, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, unexpectedly flew to Riyadh and declared his resignation there on Saturday. Suspicions were growing among officials and diplomats in Beirut on Thursday that he had not only been pressured to do so by Saudi Arabia but was being held there against his will.

Despite the worries, analysts, officials and diplomats said that although they were not privy to the thinking of the Saudi crown prince, it was far-fetched that Saudi Arabia would launch a military action against Lebanon, since it is already overstretched in a war it started two years ago against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen.

And Saudi Arabia has expressed displeasure with Lebanon this way before: This was at least the fourth time in five years that it asked its citizens to leave Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon’s plunge into political crisis raises specter of war with Israel

The Washington Post reports: Even for a country often used as a battleground by regional powers and their proxies, the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has opened a new period of political uncertainty and fear in Lebanon.

The tiny nation has often been caught between the political agendas of more-powerful countries. But it now appears more vulnerable to conflict as Israel and Saudi Arabia try to isolate their shared enemy, the Iran-backed movement Hezbollah.

Hariri, a Sunni politician backed by the Saudis, cited Iranian meddling in Lebanese politics as the reason for his decision to step down.

But the fact that he made his announcement in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia left little doubt that his regional patron must have played a role in a move that caught even his aides off guard. [Continue reading…]

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A resignation, detentions and missiles: 24 hours that shook the Middle East

CNN reports: When 32-year-old Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power two years ago, many predicted that change was afoot. The events of November 4 have shown that change would not just be swift, but also seismic, extending unremittingly beyond the kingdom’s boundaries.

A 24-hour sequence of political bombshells began on Saturday afternoon, when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, blindsiding his country’s political establishment. Hours later, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported that the country’s military had intercepted a Yemen-borne ballistic missile over Riyadh. Even as images of the blast were flashing on TV sets around the region, similarly dramatic news began to trickle in: Some of Saudi Arabia’s most high-profile princes and businessmen were being sacked and detained in an anti-corruption drive led by bin Salman.
The events serve as an opening salvo for a new period in the region’s crisis-ridden history, analysts say. They represent an escalation in a yearslong proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, threatening to activate new fronts in the region, with the Saudi show of force beginning with a sweeping consolidation of power from within.

On Friday, ISIS’ last strongholds in Iraq and Syria fell. It marked a major milestone in a fight that saw archrivals converge on the extremist group until its so-called caliphate was on its last legs. On Saturday, regional powerhouses appear to have trained their sights on one another.

“I think the end of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, does not really mean the end of geostrategic struggles,” London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Gerges told CNN’s George Howell.

“On the contrary, the dismantling of the so-called caliphate will basically intensify the geostrategic struggles between the pro-Iranian camp led by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and its allies in the region, including the United States.” [Continue reading…]

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Lebanese PM Hariri resigns, attacking Iran, Hezbollah

Reuters reports: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Saturday, saying he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

His resignation, a big surprise to Beirut’s political establishment, brought down the coalition government and plunged Lebanon into a new political crisis.

It thrust Lebanon into the front line of a regional competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran that has also buffeted Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. A Saudi government minister said Hariri was in Riyadh to ensure his safety.

Hariri, who is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, alleged in a broadcast from an undisclosed location that Hezbollah was “directing weapons” at Yemenis, Syrians and Lebanese. [Continue reading…]

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Birth of a second Hezbollah? Where Iran stands in a post-war Syria

Shahir Shahidsaless writes: Iran’s doctrine in Syria and Iraq is that “if we don’t defend our strongholds outside of our borders we will have to fight our enemies inside our borders”. Accordingly, Iran heavily invested in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, has previously estimated that Iran spends $6bn annually in the Syrian war.

According to IRGC officials, the largest Iranian contribution has been the organising of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia. According to several independent reports, at any given time, there are an estimated 50,000 National Defence Force fighters under arms in Syria.

In May 2014, Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who had reportedly supervised the funding for the NDF, said that Iran had organised roughly 70,000 pro-Assad NDF fighters into 42 groups and 128 battalions. Hamedani was killed near Aleppo in 2015.

In addition, numerous reports confirm that the Fatemiyoun Brigade – composed of thousands of Afghan Shias who fight under the auspices of Hezbollah Afghanistan, the Zaynabiyoun Brigade (the Pakistani version of Fatemiyoun), Hezbollah of Lebanon, and the militia group Kataib Hezbollah of Iraq – are actively involved in the Syrian war under the Iranian IRGC’s direct control.

Modelled after the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the experience of coordinating with proxy militias in Iraq, this large, battle-hardened paramilitary base in Syria will provide assurance to Iran by emerging as a decisive political force in Syria once the war is settled, no matter which government is in power as it happened in Lebanon and Iraq.

This simply means the birth of a second Hezbollah and an Iranian foothold right in Israel’s backyard with Syria. [Continue reading…]

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After Russia, Iran seeks deal for long-term Syria garrison, says Israel

Reuters reports: The Israeli intelligence minister said on Monday that President Bashar al-Assad was ready to permit Iran to set up military bases in Syria that would pose a long-term threat to neighbouring Israel.

While formally neutral on the six-year-old Syrian civil war, Israel worries that Assad’s recent gains have given his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies a foothold on its northern front.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lobbied Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, and the United States to curb the Iranian presence in Syria — as well as hinting that Israel could launch preemptive strikes against its arch-foe there.

In July, Moscow ratified a deal under which Damascus allowed the Russian air base in Syria’s Latakia Province to remain for almost half a century. Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said Iran could soon gain similar rights. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s forthcoming security dilemma

Nadav Pollak writes: In recent weeks Israel and Hizballah continued a time-honored tradition that tends to flare up in the hot months of summer: exchanging harsh words and threats regarding what each side will do to the other in the next war. These are not empty threats. Each side has the ability to inflict tremendous damage on the other. But even though both sides are ready for a war, neither Israel nor Hizballah wants one now. The main purpose of their heated rhetoric is the maintenance of deterrence and alertness. However, a recent development might raise the temperature even more.

In a speech at the Herzliya Conference on June 22, Israel’s head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, basically confirmed prior reports in Arab media that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is working to establish an independent weapons industry in Lebanon focused on advanced missiles. This worrying development reportedly had become the focus of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli cabinet in recent weeks, with some wondering if there will be a point at which Israel will need to execute a preemptive strike in Lebanon that might spark a war.

In recent years Israel attacked numerous arms shipments on their way to Hizballah. These advanced arms shipments reportedly included anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Some of these missiles are accurate and can hit strategic sites in Israel, such as military bases and important civilian infrastructure. The Israeli prime minister and minister of defense time and time again said such capabilities in the hands of Hizballah would be a red line and insisted that Israel will act to prevent the flow of advanced weapons to the militant group. According to some estimates, Israel was able to destroy 60 percent of these advanced arms shipments. This might be cause for celebration, but it seems that these airstrikes changed something in Iran’s thinking.

Israeli media reported this week that the IRGC is pushing for a Hizballah-controlled advanced weapons industrial base because this would make Israel’s interdiction operations obsolete. Tehran likely hopes that Israel will avoid attacking Hizballah in Lebanon, fearing that such a direct attack might lead to war. As such, the closer the production line is to the customer, the better.

Iran’s calculus has some merit. It appears that Israel and Hizballah have an unspoken understanding: As long as Israel does not attack Hizballah on Lebanese soil and its attacks do not result in Hizballah casualties, the organization usually chooses not to retaliate. [Continue reading…]

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How the Syrian civil war has transformed Hezbollah

Jesse Rosenfeld writes:  The rattle of tracer fire jolts a cellphone camera resting in the gun hole of an upper-level apartment on a shelled-out east Aleppo street. Moments after the Hezbollah fighter has fired incendiary ammunition into the neighborhood below, it’s enveloped in flames.

In another fighter’s video from the battle of Aleppo last fall, a burst of machine-gun fire erupts as Hezbollah militiamen charge forward and take up positions behind pockmarked walls. They shoot indiscriminately at an unseen enemy, which they say is the rebel force Jaysh al-Islam.

In stills taken by a Hezbollah fighter on the front lines of the Aleppo countryside just before the cease-fire was declared on December 30, fighters from Hezbollah (the Party of God) operate tanks flying the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The images provide a glimpse at how the most consequential battle of the Syrian war looked through the eyes of the conquering forces—and they indicate how crucial Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has been in defending the Assad regime.

The destruction the Syrian government and its allies brought to east Aleppo changed the course of the nearly six-year civil war. Indeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of what started in 2011 as a popular revolution against an authoritarian regime. By laying siege to the unofficial capital of the revolution—indiscriminately bombarding it into rubble, starving and displacing its residents, and committing massacres—Assad’s counter-revolution seems to have ensured the government’s future.

Abu Hussein has been on the front lines of Assad’s strategy and features prominently in the footage and photos from Aleppo that he flips through on his phone. He is a Hezbollah commander in charge of a rapid-intervention unit of 200 fighters. They participated in the regime’s retaking of Aleppo last year as well as the ongoing fighting around Palmyra. The boisterous militant, who uses a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to the media, contends that Hezbollah has been the Assad regime’s backbone, changing the course of the war on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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For Syrian refugees, there is no going home

The New York Times reports: In the makeshift tent settlements that dot fields and villages in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Syrian refugees are digging in, pouring concrete floors, installing underground sewerage and electric wires, and starting businesses and families.

What they are not doing is packing up en masse to leave, despite exhortations from Syrian and Lebanese officials, who have declared that safety and security are on the march in neighboring Syria and that it is time for refugees to go home.

But as a new round of peace talks convened Thursday in Geneva, Syrians interviewed at a randomly selected camp in the Bekaa Valley this week offered a unanimous reality check. Their old homes are either destroyed or unsafe, they fear arrest by security forces and they know that despite recent victories by pro-government forces, the fighting and bombing are far from over. They are not going anywhere.

About 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, making up about a quarter of the population, according to officials and relief groups, and there is a widely held belief in Lebanon that refugees are a burden on the country’s economy and social structure.

Nearly six years into a war that began with a security crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad, countries once eager to see him ousted are now more focused on containing the migrant crisis and defeating the Islamic State, and are willing to consider a settlement that allows Mr. Assad to remain in power.

That leaves many governments invested in vague hopes that such a settlement, however rickety or superficial, will somehow stop the metastasis of the Syrian crisis and ease fears of Islamic State terrorism — often conflated with concerns about ordinary Syrian refugees — that have fueled the rise of right-wing politicians.

And it gives many countries a strong stake in declaring Syria safe for return, even without resolving the political issues that started the conflict, including human rights abuses by the Syrian government.

Mr. Assad, Syrian officials and their allies in Lebanon are reading that mood. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has called for the return of migrants, and Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, has called on global powers to facilitate it.

But in a tent settlement in the village of Souairi, Syrians made clear that neither a fig-leaf deal nor an outright government victory would send many of them home.

Every family interviewed had at least one member who had disappeared after being arrested or forcibly drafted by the government. The refugees said they cared less about whether Mr. Assad stayed or went than about reforms of the security system. Without an end to torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, they said, they would remain wary of going back.

Virtually all said that they dreamed of going back, but that it was increasingly a dream for the next generation. [Continue reading…]

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