Lebanese officials are increasingly worried about new legislation introduced by the Syrian authorities in early April. The legislation, known as Decree 10 or Law 10, could make it virtually impossible for Syrian refugees to return to their homes. Given the presence of more than one million refugees in Lebanon, how the law is implemented could have existential repercussions for the country.
Law 10 has two components. It allows cities or towns in Syria to designate areas for redevelopment or reconstruction. Once this has been done, former inhabitants of the area are given a one-month period to present proof of ownership or residence, in exchange for which they will receive shares in the property companies designated to develop or rebuild their particular area.
To many observers, the one-month period makes it highly improbable that refugees will go home to assert their right of ownership. Most left Syria under traumatic circumstances, fleeing regime attacks and would not put their life at risk to confirm they own or once leased property. At the same time, many are aware that the real estate companies that will be formed will underestimate the value of properties when determining how many shares to give property owners.
Foreign governments have denounced the move by the Syrian authorities as no more than sectarian cleansing. They argue that the Alawite-dominated regime is looking for ways to bar the return of a large number of Sunnis – a majority among the refugees –who oppose Bashar Al Assad. That is certainly true, yet there appears to be more to this than meets the eye.
The system outlined by Law 10 is strikingly similar to the mechanism used in Lebanon after its civil war for property owners in the old city of Beirut. Most property there was expropriated and property owners given shares in a property company that underestimated the value of their property. Perhaps that helps explain why the Lebanese are so conscious of the potential abuses built into Law 10, which will only persuade Syrian refugees to remain in Lebanon.
Lebanon is particularly vulnerable to the presence of refugees because of its complex sectarian make-up and the fact it has already paid a heavy price for refugees. After the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, British officials estimated that about 280,000 Palestinian refugees moved to Lebanon, according to the Israeli historian Benny Morris. By the 1960s, Palestinians had mobilised politically and militarily and by the mid-1970s, they were caught up in a war with Christian militias that soon morphed into a proxy war drawing in regional powers.
Because most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslim, their presence will affect Sunni-Shia sectarian dynamics in Lebanon, with many estimates today putting the two communities on par in terms of their demographics. At the same time the permanent settlement of more than one million Muslims will push Christians deeper into their minority status, adding to their sectarian anxieties.
For all of their crimes, Mr Al Assad and his acolytes might be doing something else by playing with communal demographics through Law 10. They are exacerbating social and economic crises in neighbouring countries. Their aim is to force these countries to normalise relations with Damascus, help reintegrate Syria into the regional order and legitimise its leadership, and assist in financing the country’s reconstruction, despite the fact that Mr Al Assad remains in place.
Syrian allies have already made overtures along similar lines. In a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly tied a resolution of Syria’s refugee problem with European support for Syria’s economy. While Mr Putin was referring to Syrian refugees in Europe, the logic is equally applicable to the Arab world. There is no doubt that Mr Al Assad also views refugees as a means of securing his political aims.
In Lebanon’s case, Syria is seeking a number of things, even if this has not been explicitly expressed. It would like to have considerable political influence in the country, as it did before 2005, when it was forced to withdraw its army. It wants its political allies to be given a greater role in running the state. And it wants to ensure that Hezbollah has a predominant role, at the expense of those political forces that have long opposed the Syrian presence.
That might not be so difficult. A main opponent of Syria is Lebanon's prime minister designate, Saad Hariri. Yet Mr Hariri has hinted time and again that he would welcome Lebanon's participation in Syrian reconstruction, which would only strengthen the Assad regime. Mr Hariri has also sought a modus vivendi with Hezbollah as a way of securing his own appointment as prime minister. This is necessary to save him from political oblivion, since he has lost his one-time instrument of political patronage, his Saudi Oger company, a cash cow that went bankrupt and closed down in July 2017.
With enemies such as these and most Lebanese clamouring for a departure of Syrian refugees, Lebanon will be especially susceptible to Syrian blackmail. By passing Law 10, Mr Al Assad has raised the stakes and holds strong cards. It is not enough that the refugees have suffered and been dispossessed. They could face the ultimate indignity of helping to bolster the very man who caused their misfortune.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut