Palestinians in Lebanon: Syria’s “cunning plan” ?

Posted: July 21, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Lebanon, peace process, Syria

One of the enduring characteristics of Lebanese political discourse is the tendency to attribute things to the machinations of others. Of course, Lebanon has been the object of enough conspiracies and external plots to make this reaction understandable—after all, you’re not paranoid if someone really is out to get you. However, the tendency sometimes has the rather dysfunctional effect of distracting from Lebanese responsibilities.

I make the comment because I’ve noticed a number of recent comments, across the political spectrum, that suggest that Damascus must somehow be behind the sudden resurgence of interest in granting greater civil rights to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. One version of this theory is mentioned by Paul Salem in the latest issue of al-Ahram Weekly:

Meanwhile, the Palestinian issue returned to the scene on June 15, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt caused a minor political earthquake by tabling a law to grant Palestinian refugees long overdue social and economic rights. The proposal immediately polarised the Lebanese political scene along old civil war lines, with Christian leaders opposing it and Muslim leaders favouring it….

The timing of the proposal is interesting. While it could be just another one of Jumblatt’s attempts to shuffle the political deck, the proposal is unlikely to have proceeded without Syria’s knowledge and/or approval. As US envoys continue to try to revive the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks while largely ignoring Damascus, Syria might be indicating that its influence in Lebanon can be relevant in addressing the Palestinian refugee question. Although Syria would oppose full naturalisation in Lebanon and Syria because it would dramatically affect sectarian balances in both countries, it could support the granting of social and economic rights to refugees in Lebanon.

Another version of the theory that I’ve heard attributes recent developments to Damascus’ desire to drive a wedge within the March 14 alliance between Harari and the Future Movement on the one hand (who support reform efforts) and the Christian parties (who  have been much more resistant) on the other.

Yet the simplest explanation is that the ever-mercurial Jumblatt—who has a long record of favouring an improvement of refugee conditions in Lebanon—thought it was a good idea. I don’t doubt that there is local politics involved too, since there is always local politics involved  (although the issue is hardly a vote-winner for the PSP—Palestinians can’t vote, and it ranks low on Druze electoral priorities). Certainly, as Paul suggests, it does somewhat shuffle the political deck, although likely not in any enduring way. However, the PSP had previously sought to gain a Ministerial portfolio with responsibility for the refugee issue in the Hariri cabinet, and also sponsored a major conference on the refugees. Clearly they’ve had their eye on the issue for a while.

Politically, does this help the Syrians by highlighting their potential importance in the peace process? Not really, and I can’t imagine that they somehow thought that it would—and therefore sent Jumblat a secret coded message to “cry havoc, and unleash the dogs of human rights.” If I’m wrong and that was their cunning plan, it has had absolutely no effect outside Beirut salons, since I’m not aware of anyone in DC or elsewhere who has made the connection.

Moreover, the Syrian-hand theory assumes that Damascus is willing to sell out its long-time PFLP-GC and Fateh Intifada proxies (the only Palestinian groups with a  significant armed presence outside the camps) by using its influence over them to facilitate reform through disarmament. I’m doubtful—and even more so because Hizbullah has been wary about disarming the PFLP-GC for fear that this would increase pressure for Hizbullah to do the same.

Was it a plot to drive a wedge in March 14? Well, that theory only holds water if one assumes that Syria is unaware that its own key Lebanese allies—Hizbullah, Amal, and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement—hold diametrically different positions on the issue. Hizbullah and Amal have come out in the favour of reform measures. The FPM, however, sees tawteen beneath every rock, and has expressed the fear that if Palestinians are more easily able to work, let alone own houses, their apparently imminent return to Palestine will be halted and Lebanon will be transformed.

In short, I suspect the Syrian role in the current debate is negligible. Instead, whatever eventually happens on the issue of Palestinian civil rights will largely reflect political and sectarian dynamics within Lebanon itself.

  1. Carl Prine says:

    Smart analysis, Rex. I circulated it widely amongst my band of thieves.

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