Ghareeb Alisper, 25, sits in the room he shares with over 10 other Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. Alispre fled the city of Homs with his family two months ago and desperately wants a wheelchair but his family is unable to afford one. Photo: Getty.
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Lebanon: the country that can't keep out of Syria's war

As the conflict drags on in Syria the tensions are felt strongly in Lebanon, which is hosting almost one million refugees.

Lebanon’s 70th-birthday celebrations on 22 November were overshadowed by fears that national unity and sovereignty were cracking under pressure. This small country is not only feeling the strain of the influx of Syrian refugees – the fastest-growing refugee population in the world, soon to be the largest. It is also being dragged into regional and sectarian tensions that are increasingly played out on its soil, as testified by the twin explosions carried out by al-Qaeda-affiliated suicide bombers against the Iranian embassy in Beirut three days before Independence Day.

There are almost a million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon. Many others are not registered, and with 3,000 new refugees entering the country daily, unofficial estimates indicate that there will be two million by next year. Lebanon has a population of just over four million, so the strain on its economy, schools and health services is immense.

Lebanese internal conflict over Syria falls along the lines of the main political blocs. Hezbollah, the dominant party and militant Shia group supported by Iran and Syria, has sent fighters into Syria to defend the Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The pro-west “March 14” alliance – made up of Sunnis and Christians, together with centrists – opposes this involvement. Lebanon has had a caretaker government for the past eight months thanks to widening rifts between the two blocs. The former prime minister Najib Mikati resigned after Hezbollah’s “March 8” alliance opposed his attempt to renew the term of a senior security official. Since then, a stalemate over allocation of cabinet seats has prevented politicians from forming a new government.

Considering the government’s weakness and the historical resentment that many Lebanese feel about Syria’s influence over Lebanon’s politics, their country has been remarkably hospitable towards the refugees. When the Syrians first started arriving in north and east Lebanon, families even in these deprived areas offered them free shelter and food. But social tensions are rising. The presence of the Syrians is increasing competition for jobs, and they are undercutting Lebanese workers because they provide ever cheaper labour.

Even more pressing is the humanitarian crisis. This year has brought the proliferation of “informal tented communities” along the Beqaa Valley, in the area north of Tripoli and in the south. Many lack basic sanitation, weatherproofing, clean water, food, clothes, blankets and fuel for heating. There are also medical shortages; as winter approaches, the consequences could be dire. Ninette Kelley, the resident representative for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has described the situation as a “human catastrophe”.

Political considerations initially made the Lebanese government slow to react. Unable to forget the influx of Palestinians fleeing Israel in 1948, and fearing that the predominantly Sunni Syrians would bring about greater demographic and sectarian change, the government prohibited the construction of formal refugee camps or semi-permanent structures. As a result of this policy, Syrian refugees have settled throughout Lebanon rather than in designated areas and organised refugee camps, as is the case with refugees in Jordan and Turkey. They live in terrible conditions in sheds, underground garages and unfinished structures.

Lebanon has been praised for keeping its borders open to Syrian refugees, yet the international community has not offered sufficient assistance. The rich Sunni governments of the Gulf have avoided funding the Lebanese government directly, as a way of punishing it for Hezbollah’s influential role in the state. Instead, they fund local (often religious, Sunni) charities. Some of these could be using the aid to buy arms for training Syrian opposition fighters, or even to carry out attacks inside Lebanon.

Western aid agencies suspicious of corruption have also bypassed the government. But consequently the assistance available is short term. It completely neglects strategies to develop infrastructure in ways that could help Lebanon cope with the refugees and ease tensions between refugee and host communities.

Belatedly, Beirut and the World Bank have come up with a secure trust fund through which to channel aid. Even so, the government must reform its structural weaknesses if it is to gain control of the situation, and it needs international support to do so. The Lebanese don’t want to return to the fragmentation of 1975-90 and the civil war, but on Independence Day this year, a unified Lebanon was more challenged than celebrated, as changes in the population and regional Sunni-Shia tensions threaten a country that relies on sectarian power-sharing.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear