Foreign Relations & International Law

Dispatch #3: The Strange Sectarian Peace of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Laura Dean
Friday, January 29, 2016, 9:38 AM

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Not so very long ago, during Lebanon’s civil war, the way a person said the Arabic word for tomato was enough to get him or her killed. In at least one instance, Phalangists (Lebanese Christian militia members) set up a checkpoint, asking people to give the Arabic word for tomato to pass. The answer could win a reprieve — if the person used the Lebanese pronunciation: “banadurra.” Or it could spell a death sentence — if pronounced the Palestinian way: “bandora.” The difference is that of a short vowel. Most other Arabs say “tomatim.”

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Not so very long ago, during Lebanon’s civil war, the way a person said the Arabic word for tomato was enough to get him or her killed. In at least one instance, Phalangists (Lebanese Christian militia members) set up a checkpoint, asking people to give the Arabic word for tomato to pass. The answer could win a reprieve — if the person used the Lebanese pronunciation: “banadurra.” Or it could spell a death sentence — if pronounced the Palestinian way: “bandora.” The difference is that of a short vowel. Most other Arabs say “tomatim.”

Lebanon’s civil war raged for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, and left an estimated 120,000 dead. The country now stumbles along day to day with a fragile confessional balance — a third Sunni, a third Shia, and a third Christian, more or less — and without a functioning government. In the context of the modern Middle East, this counts as a success story.

But the fragile balance is not merely political; it is also cultural and personal. I met a man in his late fifties named Hussein. He said that most people assume that he’s Shia, because Hussein ibn Ali is one of the most important figures in Shia Islam. He’s not. His mother is Christian and his father is Sunni. His parents named him before the war, before the everyday was so inflected by sectarian identity. Very few Sunnis in Lebanon would name their sons Hussein today, he told me.

In contemporary Syria too, one’s faith — if not one’s word for tomato — can determine whether one lives or dies.

What began in 2011 as a series of peaceful protests calling — as others in the region had — for democracy and a more just and equal future, has disintegrated into a bloody civil war where sectarian identities trump democratic hopes. President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, which makes up about 12 percent of the country. From the beginning, he cast the peaceful protesters as saboteurs and extremists. The stance: Après moi, le déluge.

In some respects, the prediction was self-fulfilling. While Iran and Lebanon’s Shia militant group Hezbollah energetically bolstered the Assad regime, Syria’s more moderate resistance foundered without significant outside international support and was eventually replaced by Sunni extremists. First came Jebhat el-Nusra and other militias, and eventually the Islamic State rose. People of different sects, once friends and neighbors, now live in fear of one another. Many have moved, and neighborhoods have reconstituted along sectarian lines.

The late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid said of Baghdad during the Iraq war:

Whole neighborhoods, the very geography of Baghdad is changing in a way. You're having population shifts from one neighborhood to another becoming more, you know, almost entirely Sunni or entirely Shiite. And this is almost unprecedented in the history of Baghdad, certainly which was a city that was relatively integrated before. Inter-marriage was somewhat common. This is something that's fading almost as weeks and months pass.

The same can be said now of many parts of Syria. Of the 5.3 million refugees and 6.5 million internally-displaced persons in Syria, many can no longer return to their houses which are likely now occupied by armed members of another group, if they are still standing at all. Syria watchers worry that as neighborhoods shift to reflect these new sectarian polarizations, the human geography of Syria will be changed forever and hasten the declining diversity in this once richly-tapestried part of the world. This decline in diversity is the same effect that has seen the much-publicized decline of Christianity across the Middle East, as well as less publicized pressure on small ethnic and faith groups, from Yazidis to Druze — and the near disappearance of Jews from the entire region. Some fear the acceleration of the long-term trend increases the likelihood of the country’s dividing.

And yet, there is a surprising, even heartening, element in this otherwise bleak story: For the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, at least, sectarian dynamics seem to be taking a back seat to other concerns — for the moment anyway.

Most Syrian refugees are Sunni. This is unsurprising, since most Syrians are Sunni. Approximately sixty percent of the population is Sunni Arabs, with another ten percent made up of Kurds, Turkmens and other ethnic minority Sunnis.

Large communities of mainly Sunni Syrian refugees live all across Lebanon; not only in the Sunni areas, but in Christian and Shia-majority areas as well. In fact, quite a large number even live in territory controlled by Hezbollah, which is actively fighting on behalf of the Assad regime and has incurred the deep wrath of many Sunni Arabs around the region. But counter-intuitively, sectarianism is not among the primary drivers of tensions between refugees and the Lebanese host communities.

“Most tensions are resource-related,” said Niamh Murnaghan, Lebanon country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. On this point, most NGO workers would agree.

“No, no. Nothing like that at all,” said Ahmed Shawakh, a Sunni refugee from Raqqa in an informal settlement near Baalbek, a Shia Hezbollah-controlled area, when asked whether he and his family had faced any discrimination based on sect. “We expected it to be more than this, but there’s nothing. The situation in Syria scared us and made us afraid that anything might happen.” He has been in Lebanon for four years.

Shawakh and his family, like many of the other Syrian refugees who have settled here and work in the fields, used to cross the border to do seasonal work before the war. He believes this prior acquaintance is one reason why the relationship between the refugees and the host community are largely peaceful.

“Before the war, they knew us. With my family, we would come to this area and we’d see them. We would live next to them where we’d build our tents.”

Tensions between Syrian refugees and members of Lebanese host communities usually stem from the economic pressures a prolonged refugee presence creates: Syrians willing to work for less push Lebanese workers, as well as members of the longstanding Palestinian refugee population, out of certain sectors of the labor market such as construction and agriculture. And more generally, in a country with a fragile economy, there is an overall perception that the refugees strain already struggling infrastructure. After five years, the reaction from the host community is at times less welcoming than it once was. Recently, the humanitarian community has attempted to reduce tensions by targeting both the refugee community and low income members of the local Lebanese population.

The relative sectarian peace has been something of a surprise. Indeed, there were many sectarian doomsday predictors. In the summer of 2014, Ross Mountain, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator, addressed a press conference in Geneva saying, "We fear [tensions] will expand even further and not only result in Syrian-Lebanese interactions but also unfortunately raise the specter of Lebanese-Lebanese inter-sectarian problems,” as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees.

Thus far, such fears have proved unfounded. This is not to say that sectarianism is absent, only that people seem to be putting off those worries for another day. As in all political chess matches, those in power exploit sectarian narratives when it is convenient for them to do so; for the moment, for most political elements in Lebanon that’s not the case.

“The minorities in Lebanon are very suspicious about what will happen the day after, if there will be any cease of fire, will they be able to go back? Will they stay here?” explains Dr. Rabih Shibli, Interim Director at the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service at the American University in Beirut. “People are very scared and worried about a major demographic change [if the Syrians stay] and how that will impact.” If the 1.5 million Syrians remain in the Lebanon once the conflict is over, that would drastically alter Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance wherein each group comprises one-third. Indeed, if refugees are included, Sunnis would compromise somewhere closer to 45 percent of the population.

The desire to prevent the refugees from becoming a permanent feature of Lebanese demography has led to important policy decisions. Much of the Lebanese response to the refugee presence has been reactive and ad hoc, resulting in a precarious situation for many refugees. One decision, however, was very much deliberate: forbidding Syrians from building camps. Unlike in Jordan, Syrians refugees are in Lebanon are spread across the country, finding shelter where they may — often in ramshackle unfinished buildings or informal settlements. This is not an accident; rather it is closely related to fears of unsettling the sectarian balance in Lebanon.

The Lebanese experience with Palestinians refugees looms large over the current conflict. During the Lebanese civil war, Palestinian refugees were able to organize from their camps and became a major armed faction in the turmoil. The memory of this has shaped current policy, according to Shibli.

As a result, Syrians “are scattered all over the country in small areas. The idea of one big camp: that’s a joke or proposed by someone who doesn’t really understand politics in Lebanon. … It will never happen, one big collective shelter, because you are creating a major problem you cannot control,” in the eyes of Lebanon’s ruling factions, Shibli explains. “If they are scattered, they are easier to control in terms of security.”

This presents a problem for humanitarian organizations because it means refugee communities are often “invisible” which makes it difficult for aid groups to provide them with services.

Lebanese authorities have sought to accomplish the same result using other checks on the freedom of movement of Syrian refugees, such as curfews and checkpoints. (These measures are more present in some municipalities than others.) And while many Palestinians formerly residing in Syria — and now Syrians as well — have moved into Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Shibli says there are sufficient security measures in place that such areas are perceived to pose less of a threat than new camps might.

"Ironically, in some ways, the fear of spillover from the Syrian conflict seems to have proven a somewhat unifying force in Lebanese sectarian terms. One example of this is, perhaps, the support of some Lebanese minorities (Christians in particular) for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. "It seems since 2013-2014 that even the rank and file of [the] Christian March 14 [Alliance] is 'grateful' for what Hezbollah is doing in Syria, even if some of their leaders are still officially criticizing the intervention. For instance, Samir Geagea (Lebanese Forces [second largest Christian party in Lebanon]) is still against in in principle, but [among] his followers are many who say they disagree. Same thing with the Kataeb," another prominent Christian party, says Aurelia Daher, a researcher whose work focuses on Hezbollah. Some members of minority groups in Syria are also among principal supporters of the Assad regime, which has traditionally protected them. So while Hezbollah has few friends among many Sunnis around the world, it has a bit more acceptance among some Lebanese groups than it used to."

But none of this quite accounts for the absence of significant sectarian problems with refugees, given the Syrian conflict and sectarian problems within Lebanon. The Syrian conflict has become tragically and pervasively sectarian. Lebanon is still recovering from its own sectarian civil war. Yet inject about a million and a half refugees from the current conflict in the cauldron of the former, and the strange result, at least for now, is something like sectarian peace.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect divisions in Lebanese politics.

Laura Dean is a journalist reporting from the Middle East and Europe. Previously, she was the Senior Middle East Correspondent for GlobalPost, writing from Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Dean formerly worked as an election observer with with the Carter Center in Tunisia and Libya and served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The New Republic,, Foreign Policy, The London Review of Books blog and The Globe and Mail, among other publications. Dean grew up in Bahrain and graduated from the University of Chicago. She speaks French and Arabic.

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