In a fascinating turn of events for the region in 2023, diplomacy appears to be leading the way in the Middle East. In this regard, Jordanian foreign minister and deputy prime minister Ayman Safadi met with Lebanese foreign minister Abdullah Bou Habib on March 28 to discuss bilateral relations and regional issues—particularly and interestingly that of Syria. The meeting is significant, given the rapid diplomatic shift across the region concerning Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Yet while Jordan has worked to build support for its “step-for-step” plan on Syria, Beirut has remained relatively quiet regarding Damascus’s role in the region. That said, Lebanon has serious interests in Syria that will guide its approach to Assad in 2023 as diplomatic engagement ramps up across the region.
The Refugee Question
The foreign ministers’ meeting touched on issues impacting both countries in relation to Syria. Both officials discussed the refugee file at length—a difficult subject given the Syrian neighbors’ substantial refugee populations. Lebanon officially hosts approximately 822,000 refugees, with some estimates reaching 1.5 million when considering unregistered Syrians. Jordan, meanwhile, hosts roughly 1.3 million Syrian refugees.
Yet while the refugee issue dominated talks on Syria, Jordan’s ongoing step-for-step initiative underpinned the meeting’s focus on Damascus. Amman has quietly advocated for the approach, which centralizes tiered diplomatic thawing with the Syrian government in exchange for parallel concessions consisting of political reforms, often described as protections for refugees returning to their communities, combating smuggling, and tempering Iran-backed armed groups inside Syria.
The plan has failed thus far, as Jordan’s renormalization effort with Assad has not slowed smuggling along the Jordan-Syria border or pushed Iran-backed militias from the border zone. Rather, ongoing efforts led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continue to garner the most focus and progress, albeit without much reform or clear political promises from the Syrian side.
Still, Beirut’s delegation expressed support for the Jordanian initiative. Indeed, the Lebanese government publicly supports many of the focus areas within the Jordan plan—namely refugee returns. Bou Habib made this clear, noting the “humanitarian tragedy is not only the tragedy of civilians displaced from their land and homeland but also a significant challenge for Lebanon at the economic, social and especially political and security levels.”
The foreign minister’s statement certainly reflects Beirut’s thinking on the Syria file. The Lebanese government has focused heavily on Syrian refugees in recent years to shift blame for its brutal economic collapse from the country’s traditional elites to that of a foreign enemy—namely, Syrians. It is an ongoing fallacy meant to scapegoat a group that, in reality, receives support and funding from relevant UN agencies and not the Lebanese government. Regardless, the line works with much of the public, and has thus become a priority area shared with Jordan as well as Turkey.
The Importance of Stability in Syria for Lebanon
Still, other issues connected to the Syria file also carry significant importance for Lebanon. This includes a general desire for stability in its eastern neighbor, particularly given the two countries’ deep interconnectedness. Indeed, instability in one of these two countries often leads to a similar outcome in the other, best exemplified by Lebanon’s currency crisis producing similar monetary issues in Syria in recent years.
Interconnectivity and stability also go hand in hand with another core Lebanese interest; namely, finalizing and implementing an energy deal negotiated in late 2021 between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Importantly, U.S. officials helped mediate the deal. The agreement establishes the framework for a $300 million World Bank loan to finance repairs to the Arab Gas Pipeline in Syria that would, in part, facilitate the flow of gas from Egypt and Jordan to Syria and northern Lebanon.
The deal is currently held up by both delayed Lebanese reforms to its electricity sector and a supposed ongoing U.S. sanctions review. Both Egypt and the World Bank have thus far refused to begin implementing the deal without Washington’s assurance that it does not violate the Syria sanctions regime and Beirut’s reforms to its highly inefficient electricity regulations, respectively. Specifically, the concern relates to details in the agreement that stipulate a small percentage of gas for the Syrian government as a type of payment for its section of the pipeline. At present, U.S. sanctions do not allow any energy sector imports or investments in Syria.
Given these interests and their deeply rooted connection to Lebanon’s overarching stability—or political survival with respect to false accusations against Syrian refugees—Beirut thus places high importance on Syria’s return to the regional diplomatic fold. Lebanese leaders likely view Amman’s step-for-step plan as a serious mechanism for such prospects, even if anti-smuggling components directly harm certain Lebanese factions (namely Hezbollah). Whether Lebanon views step-for-step as a mechanism for broader, international shifts on Syria, however, remains to be seen.
Constrained by Internal Division
To be sure, Lebanon’s political landscape is as far from monolithic as any context across the globe. A substantial portion of the population is intensely anti-Syria and anti-Assad—namely the March 14 Alliance consisting of the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb Party, many independent MPs, smaller parties, and the former Sunni-dominated Future Movement. These parties stand in contrast to the pro-Syria March 8 Alliance, led by Hezbollah and consisting of the Amal Movement, Progressive Socialist Party, and Free Patriotic Movement.
How the March 14 Alliance members view any such move deemed as accommodating to Damascus—particularly amidst an ongoing presidential debate that has witnessed Hezbollah-backed and staunchly pro-Assad Marada member of parliament (MP) Suleiman Frangieh become the potential frontrunner for the Lebanese presidency—remains to be seen. It is not far-fetched to speculate that negative views of Frangieh translate similarly to any engagement with Assad, and vice versa, given the strong fear of and resentment against the Syrian occupation of the past. Still, neither alliance is necessarily a monolith either.
Ultimately, Hezbollah carries the most power and influence in Lebanon and can easily dictate not only the presidential outcome but Beirut’s engagement with Damascus. That said, the Lebanese government carries minimal serious influence over regional actions pertaining to Syria given the scale of foreign interference in its internal affairs. For these reasons, Lebanon will likely remain in the shadow of broader regional renormalization efforts tied to the Assad regime while focusing heavily on the Syrian refugee file in the near term—regardless of its support for Amman’s efforts.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.