Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, July 15th, 2008
Peter Harling: Director, Iraq-Syria-Lebanon Project
International Crisis Group
The New Lebanese Equation: The Christians’ Central Role, Middle East Report N°78, 15 July 2008
After decades during which they saw their influence consistently decline, Lebanon’s Christians are in a position to once again play a decisive political role. The May 2008 Doha agreement, coming in the wake of Hizbollah’s takeover of West Beirut, provides the Christian community with the opportunity to regain an important place on the political map and to advance demands that have long been ignored. Already, Christians have obtained key positions in the new government, which was formed on 12 July. But the Doha agreement goes well beyond.
The Doha accords have ushered in three significant changes. First, they led to the election as president of Michel Suleiman, the former army commander. As a result, the Christians recovered the institution to which they are constitutionally entitled but whose effective powers had considerably diminished since the crisis began in 2004. The new president is likely to be courted by political actors of all stripes, each seeking to shape decisions he will face at his term’s outset. These include initiation of a dialogue on a national defence strategy (which, ultimately, will have to include the question of Hizbollah’s weapons), preparation of the 2009 parliamentary elections and the definition of new relations between Syria and Lebanon founded on mutual respect for sovereignty.
Secondly, the Doha agreement paves the way for a more Christian-friendly electoral law. Up until now, the electoral map was such that the vast majority of Christian candidates had to enter into alliances with the main Muslim parties. Most Christian politicians, it follows, were elected thanks to Muslim votes. Not any more. Post-Doha, Christian parliamentarians for the most part will be elected in predominantly Christian districts. That means they will have real leverage and be able to adjudicate between the two principal Muslim poles, the one dominated by the Sunni Future Movement, the other by the Shiite Hizbollah. Because Lebanon’s political system broadly allocates ministerial seats in accordance with various parties’ parliamentary weight, the Christian vote will be decisive in the establishment of a novel balance of power – unless, of course, violence or massive irregularities prevent the holding of elections or undermine their credibility.
Thirdly and lastly, Christians will be in a position to revitalise old demands which the rest of the political class generally has disregarded. President Suleiman mentioned these in his inaugural address and Michel Aoun, the community’s self-proclaimed leader, also made them the focus of his effort to build a large Christian coalition. Among these demands are long overdue and ever deferred administrative reforms (eg, decentralisation), empowering the presidency, ensuring better Christian representation in senior civil service positions, rejecting the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees and facilitating the return of displaced and exiled co-religionists. Never before have these claims – which have long obsessed members of the Christian community – been as central a part of the political debate as they are today. Because powerful Muslim actors will need to ensure the loyalty of Christian politicians, and because such politicians’ leverage thereby will be strengthened, some of these longstanding demands could well be realised in the end.
For Lebanon’s Christians, these represent potentially momentous changes. The formula devised in 1989 to end the fifteen-year civil war shifted the balance of power in a way that clearly disfavoured them: the president was stripped of several prerogatives while the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians was brought down from 60 to 50 per cent. The ensuing period was characterised by Syria’s military occupation and the systematic repression of pro-independence Christian movements. Already weakened by a substantial wartime exodus, the Christian community was both leaderless and adrift, contributing to a sense of dispossession that, to this day, shapes its outlook in profound ways.
Syria’s 2005 withdrawal enabled the return and release of key Christian leaders together with the reassertion of core demands. But the Christian political scene split into two camps. On one side, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amine Gemayel’s Phalanges banked on the end of all residual Syrian influence, joined forces with former pro-Syrian actors (a majority of Sunnis and Druze) and called upon the international community to help restore a sovereign Lebanese state. This latter goal would be achieved, in particular, by setting up an international tribunal charged with investigating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder, imputed to Damascus, and by pressing for Hizbollah’s disarmament. On the other side, General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement challenged the political system as a whole, breaking its isolation by forging a controversial understanding with Hizbollah, Syria’s main Lebanese ally.
The first camp defined the priority as genuine sovereignty through which would emerge a strong state capable of carrying out Christian demands. Aoun’s camp, by contrast, argued that its ties to a powerful actor, flexible on all issues other than its armed status, was the optimal way to address the community’s immediate and vital concerns. It also claimed that the emergence of an unchallenged Christian leader (read: Aoun as president) would allow a complete overhaul of the political system.
The tug of war between the two principal Christian camps is hardly over. Much will depend on the 2009 parliamentary elections which will be a test of their respective power and determine the country’s next government. In that sense, the Christian electorate – whose political preferences are by far the least predictable of all – will play a decisive role. Assuming it can play its role deftly, it will be in a position to promote policies it has long advocated. More importantly, it will be in a position to ensure that the country’s political conflicts are resolved within and not in spite of its institutions – through ballots rather than bullets. After one full-blown civil war and another near-miss, that would be no small achievement.
Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Middle East Report N°77, 10 July 2008
A refugee crisis was feared before the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came later than anticipated, and on a greater scale. It started not because of the military action, but two years later, when American efforts to rebuild the country faltered, …. While the security situation in Iraq shows progress, the refugee crisis will endure for some time and could worsen if that progress proves fleeting.
… Host countries must provide adequate services and protection. But donor countries and Iraq bear the greater responsibility to assist both the refugees and the host countries…..
While initially welcoming of their Iraqi brethren, Syria and Jordan soon began placing tough restrictions on refugee entry. Moreover, by either design or default, they provided few basic services and opportunities for employment, adequate health care or children’s education. Despite some overt signs of refugee opulence, notably in Amman – stirring envy and resentment among the local population – the result has been growing pauperisation of Iraqis, whose savings are being depleted, while alternative sources of income, whether from local employment or family remittances, are likely to dry up. With little to lose and nothing to look forward to, refugees could become radicalised and more violent; crime, which already has reached worrying levels in host countries, could rise. The principal host countries, whose socio-economic capacities are being stretched, will bear an increasingly costly burden; this, in turn, could exacerbate tensions between host and refugee populations.
If Jordan, Syria and Lebanon can be faulted for unfriendly treatment of refugees at border crossings and lukewarm assistance once they have entered, they should, nonetheless, be credited for having agreed to receive so many Iraqis in the first place and allowing them to stay at great cost to their own societies. By contrast, it is difficult to give the Iraqi government any credit at all. Flush with oil money, it has been conspicuously ungenerous toward its citizens stranded abroad. No doubt there are senior former regime figures among the refugees, but this does not excuse callous neglect of overwhelmingly non-political people who loyally served Iraq rather than any particular regime.
The approach of the international community, especially states that have participated in Iraq’s occupation, has been equally troubling. Western nations have been happy to let host countries cope with the refugee challenge, less than generous in their financial support, and outright resistant to the notion of resettlement in their midst. Although it has contributed more than most, the U.S., whose policies unleashed the chaos that spawned the outflow, has clearly failed in its own responsibilities: downplaying the issue, providing far less assistance to host countries than needed and admitting to its own shores merely a trickle of refugees and only after unprecedented security checks to which asylum seekers from other nations are not subjected…..
…For the vast majority of refugees, returning home is the only viable solution, but that will not happen soon. In the meantime, the international community – especially countries that bear responsibility for the war and the post-war chaos – has an obligation to do more both to assist refugees in host countries and to welcome additional Iraqis on their own soil.
This is a humanitarian tragedy, but it is more than that. Rich in oil, Iraq today is bankrupt in terms of human resources. It will take decades to recover and rebuild. Because most refugees come from what used to be the (largely secular) middle class, their flight has further impoverished Iraq and potentially deprived it of its professional stratum for a decade or more. The period of exile should be used to teach refugees new skills to facilitate their eventual social reintegration and contribution. There is every reason to assist host countries in that endeavour.