The conventional narrative is that Russian military operations against ISIS will help Lebanon by stopping the flow of Syrian migrants across its border and encouraging existing migrants to return home. But there may be a number of different factors this analysis doesn’t take into account.

A Syrian refugee Ibrahim, 16, poses for a picture as he sits in his family tent at a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Hosh Hareem, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon. Photo: AP

Lebanon is another country that has to shoulder the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis. There is now speculation that Russia’s airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) might indirectly alleviate this problem by directing the flow of refugees from Lebanon to Syria’s secure zones once they are freed from ISIS. Unfortunately, this speculation is based on a number of flawed assumptions.

Europe’s flawed logic about Syria

European countries have recently set out to change their approach towards the incoming waves of migrants from the Middle East. Europeans are afraid of being overwhelmed by what they consider a huge influx of population with different or even alien moral, cultural and religious norms and background.

Many fear that the rise of the migrant population will threaten economic growth and will put an additional burden on their shoulder. Slovenia has deployed military units in order to control the inflow from neighboring Croatia while Germany is leading the EU’s negotiations with Turkey, trying to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accept financial help in exchange for keeping Syrian refuges inside the country.

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The logic of Europe is clear – money in exchange for border protection. However, in the language of abstract numbers, the deal looks slightly different. By various estimates, the EU has already received about 850,000 refugees, while Turkey – about 1.9 million refugees. The population of the EU is nearly 500 million people, while the population of Turkey is 77 million.


Source: The UN Refugee Agency / CNN

After applying some simple mathematics, we see that the EU was thrilled by the arrival of less than 0.2 percent of its population and has proposed that Turkey enlarge its own refugee population to exceed the current level of 2.4 percent. It seems that Ankara sees the deal the same way, so the bargaining between the two sides regarding the size of financial aid and other benefits for Turkey continues.

Nevertheless, there is another country that has welcomed a much bigger proportion of refugees if we compare it with its own population. Lebanon, a tiny nation of 4 million people located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, has become a temporary home for more than 1.1 million people. Since the beginning of the conflict in neighboring Syria, the government of Lebanon has been grappling with the dire state of the economy and public services.

As the country’s Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told Reuters in an interview, the demand for electricity has risen and the country now suffers daily power cuts. Growing demand for food has also led to an increase in consumer prices. The same can be said about almost every aspect of daily life of Lebanon. Nevertheless the country is not new to the refugee crisis and has already integrated a large population of refugees that came from other departure points - and much earlier than their Syrian brethren.

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According to Lebanon’s Minister of Education, Elias Bou Saab, this September around 400,000 Syrian children staying in Lebanon were to enter school. However, the country could offer only 160,000 additional spaces and it doesn’t have enough money to hire extra teachers and to create secondary shifts in additional schools.

Lebanon has received aid from international organizations such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Bank and the governments of UK, Germany, Norway and the United States, but it was not enough. The Lebanese budget still lacks an additional $250 million just to keep the educational system running.

While taking part in the UN General Assembly, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam asked world leaders for additional help.

“The international community’s reaction to a crisis of this size hasn’t been at the required level,” Salam said. “We need to recognize the importance of putting an end to armed conflicts, terrorism and sectarian violence to guarantee security and stability.”

Russia’s role in saving Lebanon from ISIS

Russia has been pursuing a strikingly different approach to the crisis. Since the time when the first anti-government demonstrations broke out in Syria in 2011, Russian officials have been stubbornly insisting that Moscow will block any foreign intervention into Syrian internal affairs. Probably, they managed to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his clique from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s scenario and Syria from Libya’s fate. Nevertheless, the civil war broke out in the country and almost every neighboring nation has a hand in it.

Russia refrained from direct interference until fall 2015 when its Air Force started to attack “terrorist positions.” Though there have been many rumors about who the real targets are – pro-Western sources maintain that it was secular rebel groups, pro-Russian sources claim that the attacks targeted only “terrorists” with no consideration of the group name - Russia has already been hailed as a savior in some parts of Lebanon.

Media reports by Qatari Al-Jazeera, which is usually highly critical of Moscow and its Middle Eastern policy, states that the beginning of Russian Air Force operations in Syria stopped ISIS’s push towards the borders of Lebanon. The self-proclaimed Caliphate was moving westwards with a threatening speed. Battles were staged all along the western border of Syria reaching from Qalamoun in the south to Qaryatayn in the north.

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The Lebanese army and Hezbollah militia did their best to stop the terrorists from entering the country but there were reports of dispersed ISIS groups in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. If the Islamists had continued the offensive, the secular Arab state on the shore of Mediterranean sea would have fallen. That means that all ethno-religious groups that live in the country except for Sunni Muslims would have been place in extreme danger and would have had to choose between escaping from their homeland and facing the ISIS militias.

However, saving Lebanon from being overtaken by ISIS is one thing and coping with the refugees’ problem is another.

Other options to help Lebanon

There are probably other ways to help both the Lebanese people and Syrians refugees that are different from just pouring money into aid programs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Syrian refugees that have stopped in Lebanon and other countries bordering on Syria such as Jordan and Turkey did it not only because they wanted to escape war. They also wanted to stay close to their home country. Many of them hope that one day sooner or later the violence in Syria will be over and it will be a peaceful, tolerant country again.

One may think that the recent ground offensive by the Syrian army against different terrorist factions could be the first good sign for the refugee population. If Assad’s forces manage to create safe zones in northwestern and central Syria, the refugees will be able to return. The governorate of Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Tartus and Idlib were the most densely populated areas of the country before the conflict broke out. Out of 18 million Syrians, 5.5 million lived in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Hama.

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The Russian airstrikes came mostly in the same areas and, according to reports in Russian media, forced the “terrorists” to retreat. That could be seen as the first sign of the creation of a security zone or government enclave in Western Syria. If ISIS and other “terrorists” (or rebels) will not reverse the situation on the ground, the next stage could be the normalization of life in the secure zone and refugee repatriation from neighboring countries with free elections to follow only afterwards.

The devil is in the details

Yet, the current events in Syria are contradictory – ISIS-controlled media reported recent advances on the government’s army positions near Aleppo, and various rebel factions claimed victories near Hama and Homs.

Moreover, no official has voiced the possibility of the return of Syrian refugees. However, this option should be kept in mind because Syria is the logical place for the Syrian people to be. Nevertheless, it should become safe and free of terrorists before this happens.

Many Lebanese, including local journalists, experts and politicians, expressed fear that even the creation of the secure zone will not be enough. First, because refugees have no incentives to go back: Many are living a better life as a refugee in Lebanon with access to free education and health services and financial aid from various charity organizations.

Second, the Syrian regime will not accept them back. What seems like a good idea in the eyes of foreigners oftentimes is a deadly mistake in the Middle East. Many Lebanese as well as the Syrian government believe that ISIS and other groups have infiltrated the refugee population and that the former will return with the latter to the territories just cleared.

Therefore, they believe that the best strategy for Russia is to continue supporting Assad’s army and for the army to keep on fighting until the whole of Syria is free from terrorist activities.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.