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Could a division of Syria alter Lebanon’s demographics?

A Free Syrian Army fighter gestures at a site hit by what activists said was an air raid by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in Aleppo's al-Saliheen district December 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Saad AboBrahim)

Whispers in the halls of power indicate the increasing likelihood of new, permanent borders being drawn in Syria, leading to the creation of three sovereign political entities: one Alawite, one Sunni, and one for Christians, Druze, Kurds and other minorities. If this comes to pass, sources in Lebanon fear the displaced Syrians residing in the country may not return, especially in the areas of Kfarshouba, Arqoub, and the surrounding areas, as well as some other areas of the Western Bekaa where Syrians are being housed in permanent structures. Even if the Syrians do go back, the sources fear it will not be for another five to 10 years.

Diplomatic sources paint a grim picture of Lebanon’s future if the Syrians do not return home. Those Syrians who are particularly vulnerable are those whose homes in Syria now lie on the front lines that could soon solidify into borders if the country is divided. Even areas under rebel control change hands between the various factions of the armed opposition, as happened in Deraa and the surrounding areas. Most residents of those towns and villages have still not returned, especially younger generations who are reluctant to leave the areas they have resettled.

The Lebanese sources wonder about the silence on a local, regional and Syrian level regarding this stream of Syrians into Lebanon, and its implications for the demographic balance of the country, speculating that there may be a political and sectarian dimension to the issue.

Separately, the diplomatic sources say that based on their information, some regional and international powers are working toward preventing a presidential vacuum, but the developments of the last six months, including the Iranian nuclear deal, have muddied the waters, and choosing a president will prove difficult until things settle and the implications of these developments grow clearer.

These sources advise the Lebanese to work toward forming a government to handle public affairs during this transitional period, until there is a clear outcome to the fighting in Syria, so that the Lebanese presidential election will follow and hopefully coincide with an end to the ambiguity on the broader regional scene.

The sources say that the regional atmosphere will be particularly delicate in the period leading up to Geneva II, and urge all parties to act wisely and remain patient. They expressed hope that Lebanese officials, particularly the president and prime minister-designate, would come up with a proposed Cabinet lineup before Geneva II, regardless of the intransigence of the major political blocs.

The sources confirm that their governments have urged the Lebanese not to give up on the possibility of holding presidential elections, and emphasized the importance of holding talks among the various parties in order to choose a new leader.

However, sources from several Western capitals say it would be difficult to elect either the head of the Army, Gen. Jean Kahwagi, or the head of the Central Bank, Riad Salameh, as they are badly needed in their respective fields of security and banking. The sources point out that if Kahwagi were to be elected president, there would be no one to lead the military establishment, especially because no successor has been chosen for when Kahwagi reaches the age of retirement.

Some have floated the name of former Minister Jean Obeid, but high-placed sources in the Future Movement say the party would veto his nomination.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 3.

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