How safe is it to visit Lebanon?

Craig Webb, Regional Security Coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at Healix International comments on the risks involved when visiting Lebanon.

Situation report

We consider Lebanon a MODERATE security risk country (third on a five-tier scale), owing to a range of security considerations. Lebanon has a recent history of conflict, and is surrounded by both volatile states and historical adversaries, notably Syria and Israel, though it is not currently engaged in any active inter-state conflict. The country is comprised of several disparate security risk environments, which range from EXTREME security risk areas close to the Syrian border, several HIGH security risk areas elsewhere and comparatively secure cities along the Mediterranean coast, including Beirut. The majority of travellers will find that they intend to visit relatively benign security risk environments where the implementation of basic security precautions will ensure a safe and enjoyable visit.

Primary risks

Intra-State/External Conflict
Despite a prolonged period of relative calm, there remains a significant risk of both internal and external conflict between Lebanese factions and adversarial neighbouring states. Recent government offensives in western and southern Syria have decreased the risk of spillover violence on the eastern frontier and the expulsion of Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliates from Lebanese/Syrian border areas in August 2017 has allowed the authorities to implement an effect ‘buffer zone’.

However, despite the lack of active conflict in recent years, Hezbollah remains at war with Israel, after months of fighting in 2006 resulted in a temporary ceasefire. Various Lebanese politicians have called for a permanent ceasefire and peace deal, but there is reluctance from influential figures on both sides. The growing Iranian presence in southern Syria in recent years has caused significant concern for the Israeli government, which believes the Islamic Republic is effectively securing Hezbollah supply lines through an expanding ‘arc of influence’. In light of this fluid situation, which results in regular Israeli air assaults against Iranian and Hezbollah positions in southern Syria, a permanent ceasefire or lasting peace settlement is highly unlikely at this time. An escalation in hostilities between Hezbollah forces and Israel in southern Syria poses the greatest risk of conflict in Lebanon.

Civil Unrest
In the majority of cases, travellers will be visiting comparatively safer areas of the country, including major cities such as Beirut and Sidon, where business and tourist interests are concentrated. In these areas, one of the primary risks facing travellers is civil unrest, which can occur with little warning, is often violent and poses significant incidental risk to travellers. During demonstrations, protesters often block popular thoroughfares with burning tyres and other large objects in order to cause significant disruption and draw attention to their cause. In recent years, demonstrators have repeatedly sought to block the primary access route linking Downtown Beirut with the airport using these tactics, though the security forces are generally quick to respond to such actions.

These developments highlight the risk of incidental exposure to protest activity, even where the drivers are unrelated to Western/international grievances. Though protest activity targeting international interests is less frequent, anti-US sentiment remains a significant issue in areas of Beirut, particularly the southern Hezbollah-dominated Dahiyeh neighbourhoods. Most recently in December 2017, anti-US demonstrators targeted the US Embassy in the Awkar area north of Beirut in response to controversial developments in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. During protests, activists set fires in the streets surrounding the embassy and threw projectiles at security personnel, who responded by firing tear gas and water cannons.

The risk of terrorism is most pronounced in areas located close to the Syrian border, including the city of Tripoli, where numerous mass-casualty attacks have occurred in recent years. The majority of attacks take place in symbolic religious, security or political locations in an effort to stoke sectarian tensions and promote broader instability. Countrywide, militancy is generally targeted in nature and casualty rates have decreased in recent years, owing to heighted security and intelligence capabilities. The proliferation of arms and presence of extremist elements countrywide means further militant activity is highly likely in the coming years, particularly in higher-risk areas of the country including Tripoli, where sectarian tensions remain high in certain neighbourhoods such as Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

Sunni Muslim militant groups such as the IS have carried out large-scale attacks within Shia-majority areas of Beirut in recent years and maintain the intent to do so again. The security forces are largely capable of thwarting plots in major urban centres and areas of commercial significance, having thwarted a number of plots against Western interests in recent years. One notable example occurred in July 2017, when the security forces prevented an attempted suicide attack at a busy cafe on Hamra Street in Downtown Beirut.

Additional risks

Lebanon is religiously diverse and politically fragile. The country has a population of just over six million people, a broadly homogenous ethnicity with 95% being Arab, but significant Muslim, Christian and Druze communities. The political system is defined by a power-sharing founded on principles of ‘mutual co-existence’; ensuring parliamentary representation is divided equally among core religious groups. This power-sharing system is susceptible to political paralysis; most recently in October 2016, the election of incumbent President Michael Naim Aoun ended a 29-month presidential vacuum.

Political instability and frequent periods of political paralysis have a detrimental impact on service delivery. This poses two significant, but largely overlooked risks for travellers.

1) Poor service delivery in areas such as waste disposal can pose direct health risks – since 2015, when the country’s largest landfill site closed and the government was unable to respond effectively, Lebanon has suffered from a persistent waste disposal crisis. This has resulted in widespread illegal dumping of waste and periods where waste has accumulated in the streets. The government has implemented short-term solutions to this crisis and has all but removed the now infamous ‘garbage mountains’ from Beirut, by storing waste at new landfill sites close to the city’s airport and coastline. However, this is unlikely to resolve the issue in the long term and further periods of waste accumulation on the streets of Beirut and other urban centres are highly likely.

2) The ineffective governance produced by the sectarian and unstable political system empowers alternative power structures, notably Hezbollah. Funded by Iran, Hezbollah operates as a ‘state within a state’, underpinning its ideological and strategic interests with a far-reaching policy platform. Hezbollah benefits from ineffective governance and provides alternative services in education, security and healthcare. As a result, Hezbollah is now the most powerful political, and arguably military, force in Lebanon. This poses significant risks for foreign travellers, notably those from the US, as Hezbollah is ideologically opposed to US involvement in the Middle East and has conducted numerous attacks against foreign interests in the region.

Healix advice

Effective mitigation procedures are dependent on the destination choice, objectives and risk appetite of the traveller. However, in the majority of cases, basic security precautions focussed on minimising risk exposure will significantly reduce the likelihood and potential impact of a security incident. The list of sample advice below is not exhaustive and travel advice should be provided on a bespoke, itinerary-specific basis for best results:

Travel to MODERATE security risk areas in western Lebanon can continue, but travellers should ensure they are fully briefed on the prevailing security risks and best-practice mitigation measures.

Intra/External Conflict: ensure there is a robust monitoring system in place and that important political and security developments are noted at the earliest possible time. This should account for internal and regional developments, as conflict and political developments in neighbouring countries can, and often do have a significant impact on the stability of surrounding states.

Peg escalation protocols to pre-identified ‘triggers’. These triggers should be identified by an analyst with extensive knowledge of the regional political, security and economic context and account for the likelihood and impact of the development on Lebanon. Each trigger should accompany an appropriate action, from reducing travel in certain neighbourhoods through to full-scale evacuation from the country.

Civil Unrest: monitor local media and our Travel Oracle alerts before and during your trip: this will enable you to be alerted to periods of heightened tension, planned protests and any incidents of violent unrest ongoing while you are in-country. Knowing where protests are occurring will allow you to plan your journeys to avoid these, and can also allow you to choose your hotel more strategically to minimise your risk exposure.

Terrorism: minimise travel to higher-risk areas, such as Beirut’s southern Dahiyeh neighbourhoods, where militant activity is most likely. Time spent in the foyer, entrance or other easily accessible areas should also be minimised, as these typically experience high volumes of casualties during attacks. Request an itinerary-specific pre-travel security briefing, which highlights at-risk areas in the vicinity of planned travel.

How Healix can help employers with their duty of care

Employers should ensure that they have a detailed understanding of the operating environment that they are sending their staff to; usually, this means breaking down areas of exposure by geographic region and delegating responsibility to specific individuals in accordance with operational and cultural expertise. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, employers can outsource this task to an organisation such as Healix, which has dedicated intelligence and operational teams, each with a direct regional focus.

Employers should ensure that their employees are briefed on the predominant security risks associated with their operating environment before travel, and advised how best to mitigate these risks. Where necessary, this should encompass a detailed travel security briefing and location-specific security training. Ensure that employees have a robust means of communication in order to communicate with their designated point of contact throughout the trip and that there is a robust travel risk management program in place covering all eventualities. Where standard practices are unable to effectively mitigate risks (dependent on traveller profile, asset exposure etc.) employers should also explore consultancy services up to and including evacuation planning.

Healix can provide employers with support in all these areas through our comprehensive range of Security Services.

What are the health risks in Lebanon?

Contributed by Dr. Simon Worrell, Head of Medical Communications, Healix International.

Like many countries in the Middle East, Lebanon should offer few difficulties with medical provision to the international traveller or to those working abroad. Before travelling, it is important to be up to date with childhood vaccinations and their boosters, with the addition of the hepatitis A vaccination, but otherwise minimal preparations are needed. It is prudent to practise food and water safety whilst in Lebanon: drinking bottled water and avoiding street food; but the excellent meals offered in reputable restaurants will likely pose negligible risk to your health. Should a medical emergency occur, there are a few internationally accredited hospitals in Lebanon, although you will have to travel to Beirut to access them. Travelling outside of the country to obtain superior medical facilities is rarely needed. Away from the capital city, it may be difficult to obtain a reliable source of medication, however: so for those on regular tablets, taking a supply from home to last your trip should be considered. Since 2012, the Middle East has been the most affected region by the MERS virus  – the virus responsible for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Despite this, Lebanon has been relatively unaffected, whereas other countries in the Arabian Peninsula have cases to this day. As the virus is spread by camels, it is still wise to limit your exposure to these animals, especially in farm and market settings. washing hands regularly when possible.

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