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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Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith: Theresa May is the Tory leader Labour should fear

George Osborne is not inevitable as the next Tory leader – and Theresa May could be the one to see him off.

Some people believe that Theresa May has had her day as a Tory leadership contender, but she is a woman who has been underestimated throughout her career. Furthermore, as Angela Merkel, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman will tell you, we are in the day of the (slightly) older woman politician. And, while Margaret Thatcher was certainly not an advocate for more Tory women, her legacy is a Conservative party who would not find it impossible to countenance another woman in charge. Could that be May?

Throughout her political career, May has never been seen as “a rising star”. She was involved in politics at Oxford University having gained a place from her grammar school, but was not particularly pushy or sparkling future leader material. She worked in banking for a period and was a councillor in Merton. She fought two unwinnable seats before finally getting elected to parliament in 1997. So no easy, gilded rise through the party for her. Being on the receiving end of some of the misogyny found in all parties’ selection procedures may have been the spur which led her to declare the Conservatives the “nasty party” in her famous 2002 conference speech as party chair under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership. She is a bit of an outsider, willing to argue that her party had to change and to reach out beyond its natural supporters. She is no Robert Halfon-style, blue-collar Conservative, but nor is she a “posh boy” – perhaps the perfect positioning for a future leader.

Thatcher prided herself on being an ‘honorary man’ – no feminist solidarity for her. However, May is much more comfortable supporting other women – she is an advocate of the Tory party’s efforts to find more women candidates. As party leader, she might well find ways to appeal to the older women who tend to vote, but have not always been attracted by the “calm down, dear” machismo of the current  Tory leadership.

A winning party leader will have to command the political centre-ground. May is no rightwing ideologue. She shows little passion for eye-catching policy announcements and has rarely, in recent years ventured beyond her Home Office brief to express strong views or a sense of the direction she would like to take the country in. The British public may not be attracted by demagoguery, but they will need a clear idea of what a May leadership would believe in and do. This could be an even greater barrier to actually getting elected within the Conservative party to begin with. For example, May has largely avoided the issue of Europe. She did make a speech last year criticising the stifling effect of European Union regulation, but the context was interesting. Some saw this as an attempt to broaden her appeal within the party, but it was also made at the time when she was attempting to win support to opt back in to a range of EU justice and home affairs measures including the European arrest warrant, which the government had opted out of in a grandstanding gesture. She may have to make ideological gestures to win  Tory support, but is fundamentally pragmatic.

However, that is not to say that she is not willing to be brave in taking on those who she feels need challenge. Her “nasty party” speech was one such example, but more recently she was willing to offer some home truths to the Police Federation at its conference. This was certainly at a time when the Fed was already weakened by internal divisions and the police was dogged by scandal. But, as any Home Secretary knows, the conference can be an unpleasant and surly event and it shows mettle to take them on in this arena.

Her time as one of the longest serving home secretaries is a double-edged sword for an aspiring Conservative leader. Being Home Secretary is a serious and difficult job – holding onto it for as long as she has means that nobody could doubt her credentials to take one more step up the ladder. Dealing with the security, cross-government issues and “events” which are the bread and butter of Home Secretaries is possibly a better qualification to be Prime  Minister than the more controlled environment of the Treasury. However, the all-encompassing seriousness of the role also makes it more difficult to win support as a future leader or prime minister. Being Home Secretary with the current policy portfolio is essentially about stopping bad things from happening. It does not leave a lot of time to make the wider political arguments or to engage in the “hopey, changey’” thing which many would look for in a future leader.

She has made mistakes – alienating the civil service in a particularly cavalier shifting of the blame onto senior Border Force official Brodie Clark for supposed weaknesses in border security when the fault was in her policy decisions. She has shown bad judgement and a lack of imagination in sticking with a crude immigration cap which achieves the double whammy of being impossible to deliver and perverse in the impact of trying to.

There is no doubt that May is not a clubbable or particularly warm person so has not built up a cadre of enthusiastic supporters. She has lost some good ministers from the Home Office, like Nick Herbert and Pauline Neville-Jones, suggesting that she may not excel at building the sort of team spirit needed to win a leadership bid and maintain the ‘machine’ necessary to be a successful leader.

However, she has built her career so far on not being a “natural” for each of the political jobs she has held. She has outperformed expectations and has some of the ingredients necessary to move the Tory party on from the dilettante gentleman, amateur approach of David Cameron. It is a record and an approach which just might attract both the party and those voters who Labour so desperately needs to win back. Don’t write her off yet.

This essay is from Face-Off, a series of linked articles on the next Conservative leader.