Meet the U.S.-Funded Force Behind Lebanon’s Refugee Crackdown

Meet the U.S.-Funded Force Behind Lebanon’s Refugee Crackdown

The Biden administration’s Lebanon policy ends up propping up the very order it claims to oppose.


Last month, Lebanese authorities began a new campaign of harassment against Syrian refugees, and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the recipient of billions of American taxpayer dollars, is putting muscle behind the policy. The LAF has conducted dozens of raids in recent weeks, arresting hundreds of Syrians and forcibly deporting many of them to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria in violation of international law.

Herein lies the irony: at the outset of the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to put “human rights at the center U.S. foreign policy.” But in Lebanon, U.S. policy is predicated on a paradox. On the one hand, Washington’s stated policy is one of support for accountability, rule of law, and respect for human rights. On the other hand, the administration remains wedded to the misguided belief that Lebanese institutions, like the LAF, are a positive counterweight to Iran-backed Hezbollah, the country’s dominant political and military force. In truth, however, the LAF answers to the Lebanese government, which at the moment is beholden to Hezbollah. So Washington ends up propping up the very order it claims to oppose.


At best, then, the recent LAF campaign against Syrian refugees reflects failed U.S. policy. At worst, the deportations reveal the administration’s stated policy to be nothing more than empty rhetoric.

Lebanon is home to 805,000 registered Syrian refugees but Lebanese officials estimate the actual number is upwards of 1.5 million. (The United Nations stopped registering new refugees in 2015, on the order of the Lebanese government.) In a country with a native population of only 5 million, the presence of so many refugees is impossible to ignore.

Four years ago, untrammeled corruption led to the implosion of the Lebanese financial sector, resulting in a historic economic collapse from which there has been no sustained recovery. Two-thirds of the country now lives in poverty and the refugee population continues to serve as a convenient scapegoat for a political class unserious about genuine economic or political reform. Worse yet, Lebanese officials are now using the refugees as pawns in a political game with Damascus.

The latest chapter in this story began in late March when, on a visit to Lebanon, the European Union Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic announced €60 million in humanitarian assistance for Lebanon. But, Lenarcic said, the European aid is “not a sustainable long-term solution” to Lebanon’s malaise. The financial crisis “was not created by the Syrian refugees” and it is incumbent upon Lebanese officials to implement critical reforms.

Lebanon’s caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar begged to differ. “Dear [Lenarcic],” Hajjar tweeted, “The Syrian displacement does not alone bear responsibility for the situation in [Lebanon], but it bears a huge part.” Hajjar proceeded to unload on Lenarcic a list of grievances against the refugees.

And so, Beirut started cracking down, deploying the U.S.-subsidized LAF as its enforcer. The LAF intensified raids and began summarily deporting refugees without any legal process; one refugee told reporters the LAF raids entailed “no search of the apartments, no questioning nor any suggestion of wrongdoing.”

In late April, an LAF official disclosed that some fifty refugees were forcibly deported to an uncertain fate in Syria. That number reportedly ballooned to 600 by early May. Back in Syria, the returnees face potential arrest, torture, and conscription.

According to deportee testimony, some of those expelled are held by the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division, which the U.S. Treasury sanctioned in 2020 for aiding in “the large-scale displacement of Syrian civilians.” The risks of remaining in Syria are prompting some to shell out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for gangs to illegally smuggle them back to Lebanon.

The United States and international community have provided Lebanon billions in humanitarian aid to address the refugee file, but that has not stopped Beirut from taking unilateral action before: in July, caretaker Minister of the Displaced, Issam Charafeddine, announced a government plan to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees per month. The plan was opposed by the United Nations and human rights NGOs who argued Syria remained unsafe for returning refugees. Charafeddine dismissed these concerns as a “fear campaign.”

The timing of the renewed campaign, including the increased role of the LAF, suggests that the Lebanese government and its military are leveraging Syrian refugees to serve their political agenda—namely, reconciliation with Assad. This round of forcible returns is taking place against the backdrop of Damascus’ readmission into the Arab League, and Beirut is eager to exploit the new political landscape.

While Beirut and Damascus have coordinated on the refugee file in the past, official engagement ran through Lebanon’s General Security Directorate. With Assad out in the cold, ministerial-level engagement was politically problematic. But now that the Arab states have opened the door for this type of engagement, the Lebanese are eager to walk through it.

Sure enough, Lebanese ministers convened in late April and delegated individuals to coordinate with the Assad regime on refugee returns. And, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced announced soon after Assad’s welcome that caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati is willing to lead a ministerial delegation to Syria. In the likelihood that Hezbollah succeeds at installing its ally and Assad’s personal friend, Suleiman Frangieh, as Lebanon’s president, this official track between Beirut and Damascus is posed to strengthen.

This brings us to the current moment. Speaking at the Arab League Summit on May 19, Mikati called on Arab states to invest in Syria’s reconstruction and “establish a roadmap” for Syrian refugees to be repatriated.

Predictably, it was Hezbollah that choreographed this entire dance. In a speech earlier this month, the leader of the U.S.-designated terror group directed Beirut to “restore normal relations with Syria,” adding that “there is no excuse anymore after Arabs restored ties.”

In short: the LAF, as an instrument of the Hezbollah-run Lebanese political order, exploited Syrian refugees to facilitate a political maneuver and potentially extract foreign aid and investment. The former head of Lebanon’s General Security admitted as much to the press on the eve of a donor conference in Brussels: “Come and pay, come and do something for us, so that we slow down [these deportations],” he said.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has done little more than pay lip service to “humanitarian issues in the region.” The administration continues to support the LAF, and even advocate energy deals between Syria and Lebanon that would profit Assad, as officials in Washington express qualified approval of reengaging Damascus. U.S. officials continue to reiterate that the return of Syrian refugees must be “voluntary, safe, and dignified,” but the LAF, apparently, gets a pass.

If the Biden administration is serious about human rights, it’s time to reconsider aid to the LAF.

The United States has invested over $3 billion in the Lebanese Armed Forces since 2006. In January, the Biden administration announced a new plan to subsidize LAF salary payments: $72 million will be funneled to the LAF and Lebanese Internal Security Forces through the United Nations Development Program. The scheme is legally suspect because it involves repurposing Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds for functions outside FMF purview and circumvents statutes prohibiting the government from directly paying foreign military salaries.

For all its rhetoric about human rights, the Biden administration continues to underwrite Lebanese state institutions, such as the LAF, even if those institutions neither counterbalance Hezbollah nor conduct themselves responsibly. That American taxpayer dollars perennially flow irrespective of the LAF’s behavior suggests Washington’s stated policy, however well-intentioned, is hollow.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Image: Shutterstock.