Walking around the fashionable Hamra area of Beirut recently I was shocked by the amount of Syrian accents I encountered. Young and old, pedestrians and car riders, patrons at sidewalk cafes and restaurants, teenagers hanging at neighborhood corners, high-end shoppers and bargain hunters, in hotel lobbies and apartments; dialects of various Syrian cities were noticeable everywhere. Even the staple Beirut beggars have started to sound distinctly Syrian.
It is hard to gauge how many of those I encountered on my daily walks make up the almost three hundred thousand Syrian registered refugees in Lebanon. Whether they are registered refugees is questionable altogether. They seemed to be adjusted quite well and already melting in the Lebanese fabric and lifestyle.
Refugee is a heavy word that carries a certain kind of agony and stigma. I remember being displaced with my family over periods of time during Lebanon's civil war. We were referred to as tourists, temporarily displaced, migrants or immigrants; but to be a refugee is a different story that bears different scars and a finger of responsibility pointing, in this case, first and foremost to the Assad regime. My sense is that the many Syrians I've come across represent only the temporary migrants and their number might be just as large as those registered as refugees.
In a country of four million, these numbers create an imbalance at all levels: Political, economic and geographical. What is more worrisome is that the Lebanese government is showing no signs of understanding the gravity of the situation. It has no plans that we’re aware of to handle this crisis. Furthermore, it is playing favorites as to who is allowed in Lebanon and who is being forced out.
A word of advice to anyone paying attention: Syria is going through a civil war. Unlike other countries that experienced similar strife such as Iraq or Lebanon, in Syria, there are no clear caretakers. Plus, years of bullying, freedom stifling and across the board assassinations have left the Assad regime isolated and friendless. The only way out of this impasse is for Assad and his supporters to buy time, drag the conflict as long as it can go, wreak havoc across much of Syria and spill it over to other countries with the help of loyalists such as Hezbollah.
Assad has got the experience and a long track record in mass destruction, mass killings and the indiscriminate uprooting of people from their homes, villages and land. That he is doing it to his own people might be surprising to some; but to anyone who witnessed the wrath of Syrian tanks, the bullying of Syrian soldiers and the unforgiving hand of the Syrian men and women handlers in jails and detention basements, the truth is clear. It doesn't matter to Assad whether the wrongdoer is a friend or foe, a peaceful neighbor or an enemy. One either speaks in support of the Assad regime and unconditionally sings its praises or doesn’t. If you're against Assad, your fate, as the regime has shown consistently, is doom!
While Lebanese officials continue to send all kinds of support and reinforcements to the Assad regime, this latter keeps forcing its citizens to flock en masse to Lebanon and other nations. Where will these people go and what will they do if the situation back home does not improve soon, is anybody’s guess. All indications point to a long bleeding conflict that will not end soon and when it ends Syria won’t be the same ever again.
In addition to the turmoil inside Syria, a new crisis is being created, that of the refugees and the displaced. It will cause serious headaches for all involved. Lebanon is far to small, far too vulnerable, far too divided politically and far too fragmented along sectarian lines to handle the influx of Syrians and its repercussions. With certain leaders’ unprecedented hunger for power, the bargaining and deal-making season is in its prime.
It is the Lebanese government’s responsibility to find solutions that preserve its citizens’ rights and interests first. Alas, all it is doing at this point is feeding the fire by continuing to please in all ways imaginable its Syrian master!