Refugees and politics: France's Hollande visits Lebanon

Refugees and politics: France's Hollande visits Lebanon
Comment: France must tread carefully in supporting Lebanon so as to avoid confrontation with Hizballah and others in the regional neighbourhood, writes James Denselow.
4 min read
15 Sep, 2015
The French president is expected in Beirut soon to "stand on Lebanon's side" [AFP]
The perfect storm of a transnational threat posed by IS and the mass flows of refugees into Europe has restarted debate, policy and likely new actions about what to do in Syria.

The French position to date has been similar to that of their British neighbours - bombing IS in Iraq while maintaining a watching brief of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering over Syria.

This may change in the coming weeks as countries around the world look to upscale their attacks on IS across the Middle East. French President Hollande is backing up his strong words with a visit to Lebanon - a country which, despite one in three of the population being a refugee, is struggling more with rubbish collection and the impact of the recent sandstorm that swept through the country.

Hollande has promised that when it comes to France's position towards its former colonial possession "we should be on Lebanon's side".
     The primary purpose of Hollande's trip is to see for himself how the fallout from the Syrian civil war is weighing on the country

The primary purpose of his trip is to see for himself how the fallout from the Syrian civil war is weighing on the country, and he will visit the some of the areas where refugees live.

Despite the media calling them "camps", Lebanon has not granted such official status to these often desperately poor quality homes - worried that it may give them a permanence similar to the Palestinian refugee camps which continue to accommodate thousands in the country.

France has expressed a willingness to take in some 24,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years - in contrast to Britain offering to take 20,000 by 2020 and the Germans taking that number over the space of a weekend.

European countries are carefully positioning against each other to be seen to be doing enough in the face of the refugee crisis, especially following the public outpouring of sympathy that came with the distribution of the photograph of Aylan Kurdi's death.

Hollande will also be meeting Lebanese political officials, and his visit was preceded by the French army chief, General Pierre de Villiers, who met with Lebanon's Defence Minister Samir Moqbel and expressed France's commitment to maintain a high level of cooperation with the Lebanese military.

"We are seeking to fortify peace in this country that deserves to live in peace," said the general.

French weapons have been flowing to the Lebanese military since April - part of a $3 billion Saudi grant to support the beleaguered country. The two nations share close military, political, cultural and trade tides, and Air France is promoting its new upgraded Boeing 777 airliners, which are due to start flying regularly between Beirut and Paris later this month.

However, recent high profile attacks in France including the thwarted train shooting, the IS linked-decapitation and the Charlie Hebdo killings have given Hollande plenty of ammunition to pursue the radical IS group at source.

The growing consensus in London and Paris is that the plan should be to join US efforts to bomb IS in Syria while pursuing a beefed-up diplomatic process of transition to ease Assad from power.

The French, with so much investment in Lebanon, will have to tread carefully in their positioning towards Assad to avoid confrontation with Hizballah which, despite French military support to the government, remain the most powerful force in the country.

Last year, Hollande announced that "Assad cannot be a partner in the fight against terrorism, he is the de facto ally of jihadists." Such bombastic language may be reined back now that the focus is predominantly on degrading IS as part of US-led Operation: Inherent Resolve.
     The French will have to tread carefully in their positioning towards Assad to avoid confrontation with Hizballah

Lebanon has remained remarkably stable during Syria's civil war - confounding analysts who predicted that the weak state and sectarian politics would crumble in the face of large scale refugee flows and the regionalisation of the Syrian conflict.

One of the reasons Lebanon has kept itself together has been that many of the states that are so involved in Syria have avoided fighting similar battles in Lebanon. Hollande will have to walk the line of supporting the Lebanese state while avoiding being see to only support certain elements within it.

Preparing for an expanding operation against IS, bolstering Lebanon's security structures, stepping up on the refugee issue while continuing to improve long-standing ties with Beirut will all be part of Hollande's agenda during what promises to be an important visit.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.