The migration of more than one million Syrian refugees to Lebanon, a country with a regular population of four million, is straining the fragile social fabric and tenuous political balance of the nation. Hosting this unprecedented number of refugees is pushing the government’s ability to provide basic services to the breaking point. Nowhere are Lebanon’s inherent sectarian, political, and economic tensions more acute—and precarious—than in the town of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, fewer than 15 miles from Syria. Here, all of Lebanon’s challenges of governance converge: a Sunni Muslim population that feels economically marginalized and politically disfranchised; nearby villages where residents from other sects are concerned about their security; Army units attempting to ensure security without alienating a suspicious populace; pervasive extremist ideologies; and a high unemployment rate. If tensions continue to mount, a dispute here could easily flare up and ripple across the country. In late-2016, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) 9th Brigade assumed responsibility for security in the Arsal region. Recognizing that the most effective way to foster stability is to gain the trust of the local population, the brigade’s commander requested humanitarian assistance support from the LAF Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Directorate, a testament to the success of persistent American military to military engagement. Lacking resources, the Directorate relayed the need to the Lebanon-based US Army Civil Affairs team who, in-turn, identified this need to Spirit of America. Understanding Arsal’s role in Lebanon’s security environment and having previously executed targeted humanitarian assistance projects in the region, such as the distribution of food aid through our LAF partners, we moved quickly in response to this local need. In mid-January, I joined the Civil Affairs team for a meeting with CIMIC leadership. Together, we brainstormed ways to help the LAF commander improve the relationship between his units and the local citizenry. With winter in full swing, we agreed that quickly providing winter blankets would be a win all the way around. Our US civil affairs partners worked with their Lebanese counterparts to identify low-income families in need of assistance. I coordinated the purchase of the blankets with the CIMIC staff, and the 9th Brigade Commander started planning the distribution event. During the last week of January, the 9th Brigade executed a seamless operation in Arsal. Community members were already gathered at the local technical school by the time Lebanese Army trucks filled with blankets arrived at the distribution site. Soldiers unloaded the supplies and sergeants checked off the names of recipients while the officers interacted with community leaders. Above all, the humanitarian assistance was an opportunity for the Lebanese government and the Army to demonstrate to their people that they are invested in their well-being and dignity. After the event, the CIMIC Directorate commander, BG Elie Rached, expressed his gratitude to SoA, stating: “Once again, we would like to thank our friends at Spirit of America for supporting the important work of our growing command as we continue to demonstrate to all our citizens across Lebanon that we are fully committed to their well-being—and to living up to our motto: from all of Lebanon, to all of Lebanon.” Zack Bazzi Project Manager – Middle East
Zack served in the US Army and Army National Guard from 1997 to 2008, completing four overseas deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.