Eight members of International Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council joined a trip to Lebanon alongside Crisis Group staff in November 2017 to understand the consequences of the Syrian war since 2011. Here two Council members reflect on the Syrian refugees they met and Lebanon’s increased fragility as a result of its enormous new burdens.
Syrian accents are now omnipresent in Lebanon. Busy streets are choked with an influx of Syrian cars. At least 1,700 informal Syrian refugee settlements crowd the landscape from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley.
Everywhere we went in Lebanon this month, the impact of the Syrian war was immediately evident, as were tensions rippling out from the escalating Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. It is a tribute to Lebanon’s generosity that this country of 4.5 million people is hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees. That’s the most, on a per capita basis, of any country in the world – akin to the United States taking in over 80 million refugees.
Travelling across Lebanon as part of a delegation from International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organisation, and meeting more than 50 Lebanese and Syrian actors in the crisis, we were impressed by how Lebanon has managed to cope so far, in spite of the immense challenges it has faced.
But we also heard that limits are being reached in what Lebanon can do, and in what Lebanese are ready to do. Lebanon needs help.
The outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees since then have exacerbated the deep structural challenges already faced by Lebanon. Poor public services are worsened by a government paralysed by sectarian divisions, amplified by external interference. Since 2011, economic growth has dropped from 8 to 2 per cent. Job creation, insufficient before the crisis, is now stagnant. 76 per cent of Syrian refugees and 29 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty.
The country is in no state to withstand a new external shock, and is vulnerable to internal political turmoil and outside proxy maneuvers. We heard that 300,000 Lebanese are working in the Gulf sending up to $7 billion home annually. Lebanon’s strong foreign currency reserves – $50 billion, or three years of imports – mask the fact that any economic disruption will quickly strain the country’s public debt, 156 per cent of GDP in 2016. Any loss of or remittance income alongside a lagging international community’s commitment and donor fatigue could bring down the Lebanese economy. U.S., French and other international assistance is critical to calm regional tensions and forestall this threat.