Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 2 Table of Contents
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February 2001 

Syrian Workers in Lebanon: The Other Occupation
by Gary C. Gambill

Syrian workers
Syrian construction workers in downtown Beirut [Al-Nahar]
For the impoverished majority in Lebanon, the Syrian occupation is more than just an affront to national sovereignty, a barrier to free expression and an assault on personal liberties. To the university students who demonstrate regularly against the occupation on campuses throughout the country, it is all these things, but little more. Most of them will eventually escape the atmosphere of repression that has violated their sense of justice by emigrating abroad and joining their prosperous compatriots in the ever-growing Lebanese diaspora.

For the poor and downtrodden who have no escape from this land of lost opportunity, however, the Syrian occupation has a much more pernicious face. Their nemeses are not the Syrian soldiers who man checkpoints throughout the country, nor the plainclothes intelligence officers who monitor every public political gathering, but the 1.4 million penniless Syrian workers who have flooded into Lebanon in recent years and swept away the promise of a brighter future by virtually monopolizing many unskilled professions.

The Syrian Labor Force in Lebanon

The rapid influx of Syrian workers into Lebanon began shortly after Syria's October 1990 takeover of Beirut, which completed its military conquest of the country. Syrian workers had been a significant part of Lebanon's expatriot workforce prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, but their presence had been strictly subject to Lebanese laws. In 1991, Lebanon's newly-installed puppet regime announced the official removal of most travel restrictions between the two countries. As Lebanon's post-war reconstruction boom gained steam in the early 1990's, a variety of subsequent agreements were implemented which made it possible for Syrians to cross over the border virtually undetected. By 1994, Syrian workers were a nearly ubiquitous presence in the streets of Beirut.

The most reliable estimate of the number of Syrian workers in Lebanon was calculated by Michel Murkos in two articles published by the influential Lebanese newspaper, Al-Nahar, in October 1994 and July 1995. Citing statistics obtained from Lebanon's General Security Directorate, Murkos indicated that between 1993-1995, the number of Syrians entering the country exceeded the number who departed Lebanon by 1,435,991.1 Economist Marwan Iskander, a former adviser to Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who has produced annual reports on the Lebanese economy for the past 18 years, has estimated that the number of Syrian workers in Lebanon remains about 1.4 million. Since these figures do not take into account undocumented migration into the country, they are considered to be conservative estimates. In addition, the estimated 35,000 Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon often have jobs to supplement their meager pay.

According to Lebanese economic experts, the Syrian labor force is roughly distributed as follows: construction (39%), seasonal agriculture (33%), municipal and sanitation jobs (20%), services, including street venders and taxi drivers (8%) and industry (2%).

The Impact on Lebanon

The influx of Syrian workers into Lebanon has tended to benefit commercial elites who own businesses that require unskilled labor. Since Syria's per capita GNP is less than a third of Lebanon's,2 Syrian laborers have been readily willing to work for wages that are extremely low by Lebanese standards. A Syrian taxi driver in Beirut, for example, can earn up to $200 per month--around twice the salary of a university professor in Damascus. Lebanese employers prefer to hire unskilled Syrian workers over their Lebanese counterparts because the transaction is off the books, allowing them to avoid paying the required minimum wage, evade the social security system and demand long working hours.

While this small strata of elites has profited immensely from the virtually unlimited supply of abnormally cheap labor, working class Lebanese have suffered tremendously from the entry of Syrian workers. Over the last several years, the unemployment rate has hovered around 30% for the Lebanese labor force as a whole, and is probably higher for unskilled workers, who cannot compete with their Syrian counterparts. Those who manage to get jobs are often forced to accept low wages and dismal working conditions, as well as forgo health insurance and other benefits they once enjoyed.

According to the results of a study released last month by the Development Studies and Projects Center, Lebanon's labor force is expected to grow by an average of 2.3% in the next decade, compared to an average of 1.5% worldwide.3 Lebanon's dismal economy will have difficulty absorbing this growth.

In addition, the presence of Syrian workers hurts the overall economy because very little of the money they earn remains in Lebanon. Unlike Lebanese workers, Syrian laborers are not required to pay taxes. Unlike other foreign workers, Syrians do not have to pay for work permits. According to Lebanese economist Bassam Hashem, the Syrian labor force deprives the Lebanese treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars per year in permit fees and taxes.4

Moreover, Syrian workers live in squalid conditions, often sharing a single room with several of their compatriots, so as to save the bulk of their income and send it to their families in Syria. Syrian workers remit around $4.3 billion from Lebanon to Syria every year. The Assad regime has worked carefully to discourage Syrian workers from spending their wages in Lebanon. It is illegal, for example, for workers to send Lebanese-made consumer durables back to their families in Syria.

Perhaps the most detrimental impact of the Syrian worker presence is demographic. One Lebanese scholar has called the influx of Syrian workers into Lebanon "nothing short of a movement toward Syrian colonization of Lebanon."5 Syrian nationals constitute at least one-third of Lebanon's resident population. Since most Syrian workers are between the ages of eighteen and fifty, there are probably more able-bodied adults Syrians in Lebanon than there are Lebanese. In 1994, under pressure from Syria, the Lebanese regime granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country. Many of these newly-naturalized citizens were registered in the electoral districts of pro-Syrian political elites, such as former Interior Minister Michel Murr, in order to consolidate Syrian authority over the Lebanese political system.

The Political Dimension

While the Syrian regime's commitment to maintain its occupation of Lebanon stems in part from ideological and strategic motivations, the primary reason for its reluctance to relinquish authority over Lebanon is economic. Damascus has a direct stake in the continuing presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon for several reasons. First, it provides relief for the country's 40% unemployment rate. Second, the billions of dollars transferred from Lebanon to Syria every year constitute the largest (or second largest, depending on the current price of petroleum) single source of income for the country. Third, the large number of Syrian workers provides camouflage for thousands of undercover Syrian intelligence agents under the command of Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan.

Syria uses its political control over Lebanon to protect this vital asset. First, Damascus has installed a succession of its most loyal allies at the helm of Lebanon's Ministry of Labor. Abdullah Amin was head of the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Ba'ath party prior to his appointment. Asaad Hardan was a high level official in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which advocates Lebanon's unity with Syria, and headed its "political assassinations" bureau during the war years. Another former labor minister, Michel Moussa, is a close ally of pro-Syrian Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. The current labor minister, Ali Qanso, was also a former head of the SSNP. As a result, little effective action has been taken by the Lebanese regime to counteract the presence of Syrian workers.

Second, Syria has pushed its client regime in Beirut to effectively eliminate the Lebanese labor movement, leaving unskilled Lebanese workers with little capacity to voice their grievances. Syrian intelligence was heavily involved in the July 1995 crackdown against widespread demonstrations organized by Lebanon's General Union of Lebanese Workers. When labor unrest reignited in March 1996, then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri made a series of trips to Damascus and declared a state of emergency. In early 1997, the Lebanese regime rigged the union's elections and arrested its popular leader, Elias Abu Rizk, when he refused to accept the results.

Third, in order to limit the amount of competition faced by Syrian workers, Damascus has pressured the Lebanese government to restrict the entry of non-Syrian laborers into Lebanon. This has the added benefit of enriching Syrian customs officials, who run a thriving labor trafficking racket, charging up to $1,500 a head to smuggle workers from Egypt and other Arab countries across the border into Lebanon.

Lebanese Reaction to the Syrian Labor Force

Resentment against the Syrian occupation has generated sporadic attacks on Syrian workers in recent years, often resulting in large numbers of arrests by Lebanese security forces. In December 1996, a van carrying three Syrian workers from North Lebanon to Beirut was attacked by an armed gunman in a passing vehicle, killing the driver and injuring one of the passengers. Afterwards, the authorities rounded up nearly 200 political activists for questioning. A number of Syrian workers were brutally assaulted by Lebanese Shi'ite youths after the Lebanese soccer team's loss to Syria in the Summer 1997 Pan-Arab games in Beirut. In October 1998, townspeople in the Mount Lebanon village of Iklim al-Kharroub attacked and injured 54 Syrian laborers after a 17-year old girl was raped by two Syrians. Lebanese security forces quickly intervened and arrested five relatives of the girl for allegedly spearheading the assaults.

Over the last year, violence against Syrian workers has not only become more frequent, but has also been organized in pursuit of political objectives for the first time. A shadowy terrorist group calling itself Citizens for a Free and Independent Lebanon (muwatinun min ajl lubnan hurr wa mustaqill) has launched a series of attacks against Syrian workers. The first took place in early April 2000, when Syrian worker hostels in the southern district of Sidon were dynamited on consecutive nights.6 "We are against the presence of all the foreign troops in our country and we demand them to withdraw and get their citizens out of Lebanon," said a statement released by CFIL shortly afterwards.7 A third attack took place on April 19. In June, two Syrian workers were injured (one of them severely) when they opened a booby-trapped box containing explosives in the Northern Metn, east of Beirut. In September, CFIL claimed responsibility for an attack against Syrian workers in Nabatiyah.8

After the separate killings of two Syrian workers in Sidon last month, CFIL claimed responsibility for "executing two Syrian agents who had abused Lebanese generosity." A third incident took place in the Baslaya Farm area east of Sidon, where unidentified men torched a housing unit inhabited by Syrian workers. As usual, Lebanese authorities adamantly denied that the attacks were politically motivated. Security sources cited by one paper gave a rather colorful (though improbable) explanation of the murders involving extramarital sexual escapades, drug abuse, and inter-sibling rivalry.9

The CFIL attacks have been accompanied by a rise in spontaneous, isolated acts of violence against Syrian workers by estranged Lebanese. In one notable case, a Lebanese teenager opened fire on Syrian workers in September, killing one and wounding two others. Muhammad Noureddine, 17, later told police he was angry about an unpaid debt.

Such outbursts of violence against Syrian laborers have been condemned by most opposition figures in Lebanon, who have called for peaceful expressions of opposition to their presence. The Free National Current (FNC), a grassroots organization headed by former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun, launched a highly successful campaign last summer to mobilize the public on this issue. Scores of FNC student activists, who were on summer recess, volunteered to sell produce and bread on the streets of Beirut--jobs usually performed by unlicensed Syrian street vendors. Enthusiastic motorists stopped their cars in droves to "buy Lebanese". FNC activists also performed a variety of other jobs, such as picking apples at local orchards, typically done by Syrian laborers.

Lebanese security forces reacted by arresting activists and shutting down their operations, but this only increased public outrage. In the following months, the subject of Syrian workers in Lebanon became the focus of countless newspaper editorials, panel discussions and lectures by a wide range of Lebanese intellectuals. Many who have been hesitant to criticize the Syrian military presence have focused their attention on the "safer" issue of Syrian workers.

Public consensus on this issue has become so unified that even members of Syria's client regime have begun acknowledging that something must be done. Prime Minister Hariri admitted in November that "perhaps certain jobs that are now being done by Syrians should be done by Lebanese workers," though he was quick to note that "this can be discussed in perfect friendliness and amity" with Damascus.10 In an interview published by the state-run Syrian press last month, the secretary-general of the Lebanese-Syrian Higher Committee, Nasri Khoury, insisted that Damascus is willing "to discuss means of regulating the presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon." Khoury, one of Syria's closest allies in Lebanon, nevertheless emphasized that the Syrian labor force "contributes to Lebanon's economic growth."11

Such attempts by pro-Syrian elites to placate public opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. Similar promises were made in July 1998, when the Lebanese regime responded to public outrage on this issue by introducing a regulation requiring employers to provide health, accident and life insurance to foreign workers--a measure which Lebanese officials hailed as a means of encouraging local firms to hire Lebanese workers. In order to obtain or renew work permits, non-Lebanese would be required to provide proof that they had insurance. However, Syrian workers rarely, if ever, bother to apply for work permits and Syria has prevented the Lebanese labor ministry from forcing them to do so. According to Lebanon's Central Administration for Statistics, only 530 Syrian nationals were issued work permits in 1999.12 In short, Lebanese officials are powerless to act on this issue.


The continued presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon is a reflection of, and ultimately conditional upon, Syria's direct control over the nerve centers of Lebanon's political system. Within days of Syrian President Hafez Assad's death last June, thousands of Syrian workers fled the country, taking all of their portable property with them. Having endured hostile stares from a subjugated and impoverished host population, the workers were understandably fearful that challenges to Syrian authority in Lebanon could erupt at any moment during the transition in Damascus (most trickled back into the country in subsequent weeks).

Although a redeployment of Syrian troops from Beirut to the Beqa'a Valley in Eastern Lebanon has reportedly been under review for several months in Damascus, it is unlikely that Assad will risk a reduction of Syria's military presence in light of growing public animosity toward the presence of Syrian workers. With unemployment in Syria estimated to be around 40%, Assad knows full well that a sudden influx of workers back into Syria could seriously destabilize the country. Until the Syrian economy is up and running, a prospect which few economists expect to see in the near future, the Assad regime's economic dependence on occupied Lebanon will trump all other considerations.


  1 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 14 October 1994 and 24 July 1995.
  2 The World Bank estimates per capita GNP in Lebanon and Syria to be $3720 and $1010, respectively, for the year 1999. See the World Bank's Country at a Glance Database.
  3Al-Safir (Beirut), 29 January 2001.
  4 The Daily Star (Beirut), 16 November 2000.
  5 Habib C. Malik, Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1997), p. 42.
  6 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 5 April 2000.
  7 AFP, 12 April 2000.
  8 Al-Safir (Beirut), 26 September 2000.
  9 Al-Safir (Beirut), 25 January 2001.
  10 Radio Monte Carlo (Paris), 17 November 2000.
  11 Tishrin (Damascus), 13 January 2001. The Lebanese-Syrian Higher Committee, consisting of the two countries' senior officials, was established by the 1991 Treaty of Fraternity, Cooperation and Coordination to oversee integration between Syria and Lebanon.
  12 Statistics on work permits issued in 1998 and 1999 are available at the web site of Lebanon's Central Administration for Statistics, http://www.cas.gov.lb/english/eng_bull/fol_pages/permis.html.

Related Articles

"CFIL Launches Attacks Against Syrian Workers," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, April 2000.

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