Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.

  • The Lebanese have shown a humanity the West could learn from, On: Sun, 26 Feb 2017

  • Shia leadership struggle ahead after Khamenei and Sistani , On: Sun, 26 Feb 2017

  • Iran’s conservatives scramble to find a presidential candidate, On: Sun, 19 Feb 2017

  • A strange new world, On: Sun, 05 Feb 2017

  • Iran’s judiciary gets dragged into the political dogfight, On: Sun, 29 Jan 2017

  • Hunger strikers throw down gauntlet to Iran’s rulers, On: Sun, 22 Jan 2017

  • Former German diplomat Paul von Maltzahn: Spectre of Trump haunts Europe’s bid to keep Iran deal intact , On: Sun, 22 Jan 2017

  • Rafsanjani leaves Iran in grip of power struggle, On: Sun, 15 Jan 2017

  • Iran and Russia, allies in Syria, forge major energy links, On: Sun, 08 Jan 2017

  • In Iran, ghosts of revolution’s mass killings come back to haunt, On: Sun, 25 Dec 2016

  • Oil export recovery helps Rohani but election remains a challenge, On: Sun, 25 Dec 2016

  • Is this the 1930s all over again?, On: Sun, 18 Dec 2016

  • On nuclear deal, Iran may play Trump off against other powers, On: Sun, 04 Dec 2016

  • Khamenei’s latest headache: Iranians hail a sixth-century BC king, On: Sun, 27 Nov 2016

  • The case for regulating social media, On: Sun, 27 Nov 2016

  • Iran signs major deals but worries what Trump has up his sleeve, On: Sun, 20 Nov 2016

  • Rohani, under fire again, struggles to keep everyone happy, On: Sun, 30 Oct 2016

  • Tehran hikes oil sales to East but needs West, On: Sun, 23 Oct 2016

  • As elections loom, Khamenei manoeuvres in Iran’s political minefield, On: Sun, 16 Oct 2016

  • Iran tries to cope with water crisis, On: Sun, 16 Oct 2016

  • Meet the Larijanis, a power in Iran’s new aristocracy, On: Sun, 25 Sep 2016

  • Russia’s calculations in Iran, On: Sun, 18 Sep 2016

  • In Iran, the battle to succeed Khamenei heats up, On: Sun, 04 Sep 2016

  • In Iran, jailed dual nationals are pawns in power struggle, On: Sun, 28 Aug 2016

  • Lost in the labyrinth: ‘Rogue spy’ Levinson missing in Iran, On: Sun, 07 Aug 2016

  • Iran: ‘Black cloud’ of Trump hangs over new contracts, On: Sun, 31 Jul 2016

  • Social media could hurt reformists in Iran, On: Sun, 24 Jul 2016

  • As vote looms, Rohani gets tough with big bankers, On: Sun, 17 Jul 2016

  • Tehran still looking to reap benefits of nuclear deal, On: Sun, 03 Jul 2016

  • Iran’s hardliners boosted by let-down over nuclear deal, On: Sun, 26 Jun 2016

  • How Assad created a jihadist ‘monster’ , On: Sun, 12 Jun 2016

  • For Assad’s Alawites, a grim post-war future , On: Sun, 22 May 2016

  • In Tehran, undercover morality police battle ‘bad hijab’, On: Sun, 08 May 2016

  • How Syrian war changed Lebanon’s traditional conflict, On: Fri, 25 Mar 2016

  • Iran port plan seeks to reopen fabled trade routes to Asia, On: Fri, 25 Mar 2016

  • Iran polls shape post-Khamenei era, On: Fri, 18 Mar 2016

  • Pragmatic path pays off for Iran’s Rohani, On: Fri, 04 Mar 2016

  • Iran looks to become Europe’s main supplier of gas, On: Fri, 26 Feb 2016

  • Naji Hakim, virtuoso, returns to Beirut roots, On: Fri, 26 Feb 2016

  • The Lebanese have shown a humanity the West could learn from

    Unlike Europe, Lebanon has not been swept by malicious social-me­dia rumours over rapes and thefts.

    A Lebanese Christian teenager dressed as Santa Claus, hands a gift to a Syrian refugee on December 24th, 2016, in a slum in the town of Dbayeh, north of Beirut. (AFP)


    2017/02/26 Issue: 95 Page: 12



    When war broke out in Syria in 2011 no country appeared as vulnerable to contagion as Lebanon. The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 had removed the figure with the widest national appeal and clearest strategy, and tensions between Lebanon’s two main political blocs were rising with the regional divide between Shias and Sunnis, and between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    The main Sunni group, al- Mustaqbal, supported the Saudi and US line that Syrian President Bashar Assad should leave power while Hezbollah, the main Shia party, committed fighters alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to defend Assad. As the first war refugees arrived in Lebanon, Hezbollah opposed establish­ing camps out of fear they would become rebel bases and there was a wider Lebanese wariness due to the experience of Palestinian camps, set up impromptu in 1947.

    As the war progressed — the number of refugees entering Leba­non passed 1 million in 2014 — the Lebanese began to contemplate the effects of the arrival of so many Sunnis upsetting the country’s precarious sectarian balance and making the Sunnis a majority.

    Aside from politics, the refugee presence has added to the pres­sures of daily life. Electricity and water supplies were already woe­ful. Cynicism of politicians and corruption grew in 2015 as piles of rubbish built up when the collec­tion system broke down. Political wrangling centred on a new elec­toral law, with no parliamentary elections since 2009 and parlia­ment’s mandate extended twice.

    And yet, somehow, Lebanon has held together. The country has absorbed at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees, about 30% of the esti­mated total and equal to one-third of its own population. During 2016, there were more Syrian babies born in Lebanon than Lebanese ones.

    To grasp the scale, just imagine 110 million Mexicans arriving in the United States over four years — but remember that Lebanon’s popu­lation density has reached 600 people per sq. km compared to just 35 in the United States.

    In Europe and the United States, the refugee crisis has prompted a wave of racism and right-wing populism that saw Britain vote in June to leave the European Union and spurred November’s election of Donald Trump as US president. Yet the United States has taken only about 15,000 Syrian refugees, 0.005% of its population and 0.3% of the total number of refugees. Britain has taken 10,000, 0.015% of its population and 0.2% of refu­gees.

    Of course there are signs of resentment in Lebanon, where the refugees’ presence has pushed up rent and lowered wages. In a country with 20% unemployment, Syrians work for as little as 30% of the rate a Lebanese worker expects. Some towns have signs warning “foreigners” not to be in the streets after 8pm.

    Few areas are unaffected, as Syrians are throughout Lebanon. Expensive cars with Syrian plates are easily spotted in better-off parts of Beirut such as Hamra or outside nightclubs in Manara. At the other end of the social scale, the popula­tion of the Beirut Palestinian camp Shatila, established for 3,000 peo­ple on 1 sq. km of land in 1949 — has been swollen by Syrians to perhaps 40,000 people.

    Yet, overall, civil peace has been maintained. “I haven’t heard of any increases in crime,” one writer told me. “The Syrians have behaved very correctly.”

    Unlike Europe, Lebanon has not been swept by malicious social-me­dia rumours over rapes and thefts.

    It is too easy to say this is due simply to the Lebanese believ­ing the Syrians have no chance of acquiring nationality and therefore see their presence as temporary. In fact, this is far from clear: There is every chance that many Syrians will not return home, certainly not with Assad still in power.

    No, the Lebanese have shown a humanity the purportedly civilised West might learn from. Perhaps this comes from the Lebanese own experience of war and why people flee. Perhaps they emerged more tolerant from their own crises.

    Lebanon’s failures are real enough but its successes should be recognised and applauded. The Lebanese should be supported more effectively by the internation­al community. Existing intelligence and military cooperation could be extended, existing pledges of billions in aid should be honoured. If Lebanon falters, many refugees will take a boat west and that would really be a crisis.

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