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U.S.-Lebanon Dialogue Program
January 24, 2013
Streams of Refugees Swamp Lebanon


Russia sent two Emergency Services planes to Lebanon this week to evacuate around 200 Russian citizens from Syria. Although Russia denied this was an evacuation, observers took this to be a sign that Russia believes Syrian President Bashar will soon lose power. With no end to the Syrian conflict in sight, Lebanon is bracing for what has become the "fastest-deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the planet," posing challenges to the country's stability and economy.


The UN humanitarian mission to Syria this week expressed its shock at the level of devastation. In Lebanon, many fear a similar scene should there be delays in delivering aid to the incoming families. In a country with limited resources and a precarious sectarian balance, the influx of refugees comes as a reminder to many of the ongoing Palestinian refugee crisis which has haunted Lebanon for decades. More than 400,000 Palestinian refugees reside in Lebanon, living in cramped, inadequate housing and under dire living conditions. The problem has not been adequately addressed due to concerns that "resettling" Palestinians will lead to their naturalization, thereby upsetting Lebanon's sectarian balance.


Lebanese officials are hopeful that with the right level of regional and international support, the temporary displacement of Syrians can be tackled. Lebanon has taken the brunt of the refugee crisis, as it continues to receive fleeing families, accepting more refugees per capita than its neighbors Jordan and Turkey.


By January 22, 2013, more than 221,000 displaced Syrians were registered in Lebanon. The actual numbers are expected to be much higher, as wealthier families do not typically register with the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR; it will surpass the 500,000 mark by June, according to some projections. Additionally, 200,000 Palestinians fleeing violence in Damascus also came to Lebanon, adding pressure on the already strained existing refugee camps.


While the Lebanese authorities, civil society, and family relatives are actively helping the refugees, the government's response leaves much to be desired. A report published in Lebanese daily Annahar last week revealed that the government had committed various violations of the refugees' rights, requesting that they be sent back to Syria despite their political opposition to the regime. Syrian dissidents have on more than one occasion been arrested and threatened. Only recently did the government sanction building official refugee tents to house them, but even those makeshift houses fall short of providing adequate shelter for the families.


Some politicians maintain that Lebanon must seal its borders with Syria in order to prevent a large-scale crisis, but most Lebanese have shunned those requests, expressing sympathy for the Syrians. The Lebanese people, once subject to the tyranny of the Syrian regime, seem to understand the plight of the Syrians.


All things considered, Lebanon's borders are still open, and the Lebanese are indeed offering aid to the refugees. The government is expected to request $270 million for refugee assistance at the donor conference to be held in Kuwait on January 30, 2013. This can go a long way in providing refugees with education, healthcare, shelter and shielding off a potential humanitarian crisis. The Lebanese leaders, however, must take advantage of the Kuwait summit to put together a strategic plan to tackle this issue. Without a comprehensive strategy and regional support, these challenges may grow to catastrophic proportions, risking stability and straining financial and security resources at a very delicate time for Lebanon.

Cultivating Beirut as an Intellectual Capital


2012 Global Distribution of Think Tanks by Region (6,603 think tanks total)

Lebanon is again home to the top-rated think tank in the Middle East, according to the 2012 Global Go To Think Tank Report, published by the University of Pennsylvania International Relations Program. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut took the top spot, ahead of the Gulf Research Center in Saudi Arabia, the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, and the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. That the region's top think tank finds its home in Beirut is a testament to the country's enduring ability to attract intelligent, forward-thinking, and progressive scholars.

But while Lebanon scored high marks in the quality of think tanks within its borders, it fell noticeably behind concerning the total number of policy research institutions it hosts when compared to other countries in the Middle East. The report identified only 12 think tanks in Lebanon, placing it well below Israel (54), Egypt (34), Iran (33), Iraq (29), Palestine (28), Turkey (27), Yemen (23), Tunisia (18), and Jordan (16). The authors of the report defined think tanks as "organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues in an effort to enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about policy issues." While Lebanon did not partake in the global proliferation of think tanks, its open environment does allow for more rigorous research and policy, despite the mediocre support its research institutions receive.

Globally, the Middle East performed rather poorly. With 339 total think tanks, the Middle East ranked last as a region, capturing only 5.1% of the total number of think tanks around the world. North America, home to 29.1% of the world's policy research organizations, came in first place, followed by Europe (27.8%), and Asia (18%). Given the decades of political oppression, censorship, and the absence of a public policy process, the stats are unsurprising. But now, with the breathtaking political transitions underway in the Middle East, think tanks in the Arab World may be on the cusp of a promising decade.

Lebanon, therefore, ought to ready itself to make gains in both the quality and quantity of its think tanks. Much like Istanbul, Beirut remains a cosmopolitan capital which is capable of drawing sustained foreign investment due to its position at the nexus of two worlds - the West and the East. Those ingredients prime Lebanon to widen its lead in the political-economic thought leadership critical to guiding the region in transition. First, it has a front seat to the conflict in Syria, giving the city and its scholars unrivaled access to the conflict and its regional impact.

Second, Lebanon is poised to undergo an energy revolution, given the possible discovery of abundant natural gas and oil resources in the Levant Basin. That development calls for sustained and focused research on the challenges and opportunities resting at the intersection of Lebanon's economic, political, and security interests.

Finally, the world has yet to see the final act in the Iran nuclear crisis which, if and when it comes, will surely have a direct impact on Hezbollah, Lebanon, and its neighbors.

These conditions only further underline Lebanon's need to fight censorship, encourage investments in research and thoughtful political discourse. As the country readies for elections, great attention will be paid to the depth and character of Lebanon's civil and political society. Encouraging the establishment of high-quality think tanks in Beirut, through tax-breaks and other incentives, is one of many ways for Lebanon to build on its already impressive position as a hub for progressive political and economic discourse in the Middle East. 

 Youth program tries to ease Lebanese Syrian Tensions, VOA

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The U.S.-Lebanon Dialogue Program is an Aspen Institute policy program and a partnership with the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. The Program aims to elevate the discussion on Lebanon within the Washington, DC policy community. 
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