On June 1, Lebanese president Michel Aoun signed a naturalization decree granting citizenship to a reported 300 individuals of various nationalities. Attention on the decision has centered on a core set of beneficiaries made up of many prominent members of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, as well as other powerful businessmen from the country: while they come from a range of religious sects, the common factors of wealth and influence in Syria’s economy—and over Syria’s future reconstruction—are clear. The president’s move incensed many in Lebanon, who have already been worried about Assad’s resurgence. It seemed like a reward for Assad’s loyalists, and perhaps a hint of a return to Syrian dominance of their country—a possibility which should concern the West as much as it does the Lebanese.

A Delicate Balance

Historically, naturalization has been a touchy subject for the Lebanese people. To many, being Lebanese means being able to prove a sort of paternal blood lineage to the conception of the nation, first legally declared through a League of Nations mandate in 1920. The country, at its genesis, housed an almost equal amount of Christians and Muslims in the country, with Christians making up only a slight majority of the population. This encouraged the development of political and social equity among the different religious sects. To this day, demographic alterations are frowned upon. This reasoning underlines, for example, why Lebanon has not conducted an official census since 1932, why Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese are not permitted from passing on their citizenship to their children, and why the descendants of Palestinian refugees who were born and raised in Lebanon are not eligible for legal status, just to name a few.

However, despite being an issue that triggers sectarian anxieties, naturalization is not an uncommon occurrence in Lebanese history. Thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing genocide and displacement at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, for example, landed on the northeastern shores of Beirut in the early twentieth century. Lobbying efforts from the Maronite Church and the League of Nations led to them being granted citizenship in 1924. Tens of thousands of Christian Palestinian refugees fleeing the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, more commonly known among Palestinians as the Nakba, were granted citizenships between 1952 and 1958. These naturalizations—again, pushed for by Maronite lobbying in an effort to bolster the number of Christians in the country—excluded all Muslim Palestinians but those from several wealthy families that had historical trading ties with Lebanon’s coastal elites and merchant families.

In 1994, while the Syrian army occupied Lebanon as part of the regional agreement which ended the country’s quarter-of-a-century-long civil war (1975-1990), more than 150,000 predominantly Muslim Palestinians and Syrians were granted citizenship by the Lebanese administration. This was an utter reversal of previous trends of prioritizing the naturalization of Christians. The unofficial motive at the time would be that these new citizens would help shore up votes for pro-Syrian regime politicians during parliamentary elections. Many of those naturalized from Syria currently still reside there and are even bussed in to vote during elections season.

It is clear that in the eyes of the government, refugees are less than second-class citizens in a country with no pathway to any form of social and economic mobility.

Today, even though the 300 or so now-naturalized citizens come from an even spread of Christians and Muslims, they come from predominantly wealthy backgrounds. In contrast, more than a million refugees languish in poverty, subjected to many restrictions. Most refugees work informal jobs, which pay less than minimum wage and offer no protections from abuse and exploitation. On top of that, refugees cannot own property in Lebanon, access regular health and educational services, or move in and out of the country. It is clear that in the eyes of the government, they are less than second-class citizens in a country with no pathway to any form of social and economic mobility.

Upsetting the Balance

The objections to the decree center around two main issues. First of all, many of the Syrian nationals who were granted citizenship were wealthy businessmen with close ties to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime. This included prominent figures, such as family members of the deceased Farouq el Jawd, a renowned businessman in Latakia, Syria’s principal port city, and president of the Latakia Chambers of Industry and Commerce; Moufid Ghazi Karami, a regime financier from Soueida; and Samer Youssef, the director of pro-regime, Damascus-based Sham FM radio station.

Commenting on the blatant plutocratic tenor of the citizenship grants, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, and a known critic of the Syrian regime, sarcastically tweeted: “Just tell us that you’ve reconciled with Rami Makhlouf [powerful Syrian businessmen and cousin to president Assad][…] wouldn’t that be better.”

Secondly, Aoun’s actions were interpreted as an attempt to lay groundwork to naturalize Lebanon’s 1.2 million Syrian refugees, a move Maronite politicians not aligned with Syrian regime, and who have traditionally opposed any form of Syrian naturalization, feared could shatter the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon and reshape the power dynamics in the country.

The decree, which caught many by surprise, appears to have been prepared by the presidential office in secret. Reports suggest that figures from prime minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and foreign minister, and the president’s son in law, Gebran Bassil’s Freedom and Patriotic Movement (FPM) collaborated to compile the list. Once written, the decree underwent a security and backgrounds check from the Ministry of Interior, headed by Future Movement member of parliament (MP) Nouhad Machnouq, who then passed it onto the PM’s office for approval. From there, it landed at the president’s office for a final signature and its official enactment.

As officials scrambled to justify the move amidst growing criticism, Bassil was quick to distance himself from actual authorship of the decree by defending it as one of the president’s own prerogatives. Other FPM MPs defended the act, denying that it premeditated further naturalization of refugees and some claiming that it would help bring further investments and money into the country, seeing an many of the businessmen suffer from financial sanctions, the naturalization would allow them to wiggle around it.

Syrian Power in Lebanon on the Rise

What is ironic about the current controversy is that Bassil and his party, who are ardent supporters of forced refugee resettlement, have spent years and energy whipping up sectarian hysteria about Syrian refugee presence in the country. Bassil regularly uses his position as foreign minister to jeopardize the work done by international relief agencies. Recently, he revoked the renewal of residency permits of United Nations United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff, claiming that the agency discouraged refugees from returning to Syria. This sort of rhetoric and action has empowered many local authorities to enforce strict curfews on refugees in towns across the country, while videos of beatings and harassment of Syrians have become regular occurrence on social media outlets.

That many of those granted citizenship are businessmen linked to the Syrian regime should be alarming, especially as the government has started signalling its intent to begin reconstruction across Syria.

For anyone invested in a proper resolution to the Syrian civil war and its subsequent refugee crisis, that many of those granted citizenship are businessmen linked to the Syrian regime should be alarming, especially as the government has started signalling its intent to begin reconstruction across Syria. Since many of these business associates suffer from financial sanctions due to their relationships with the regime, naturalization would allow them to go around these sanctions and subsequently take part in the reconstruction process from Lebanon. This places them and the Assad regime in prime position to lead reconstruction efforts in Syria. Such a move would most probably encourage the continued displacement and disenfranchisement of anyone who not is not politically aligned with the regime, and thus, the perpetual exile of millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the fighting.

On a local Lebanese level, this move, coupled with the recent election of a group of explicitly pro-Syrian regime MPs in the May parliamentary elections, would only serve as a gateway to the reentry of the Syrian regime into everyday Lebanese politics and the rehabilitation of its influence in the Lebanese political mainstream. This class of businessmen would possess the money, influence, and now, legitimacy to shape the internal debate in Lebanon about Syria. This could force the two countries to revert to a relationship similar to one the two had prior to the withdrawal of Syrian forces in April 2005 after a twenty-year occupation.

The move seems to be a done deal, but what is most alarming is its unsure implications for the future. Syria’s government already has pariah status in much of the world. Until and unless Syria’s status changes, neighboring Lebanon must be careful. The country is too small and dependent to confront or outright defy Syria; but by the same token, Lebanon, which suffers from lack of economic growth and stagnation from a major portion of its yearly budget spent on servicing public debt accumulating over the years, cannot survive if it loses its access to global financial opportunities and the international alliances that have allowed it to draw support from the East and West alike. In addition, any further moves that might be deemed detrimental to the refugee relief effort could jeopardize Lebanon’s standing within the international community and the halting of any support that sustains the relief effort and keeps its economy afloat.