Alex Rowell

Anti-Syrian pogroms point to darker future in Lebanon

With refugees now fearing for their lives, Lebanon is edging closer to breakdown

Syrian refugees fleeing clashes in Arsal between the Lebanese army and jihadist militants on August 7, 2014 (Joseph Eid/AFP)

Abu Gaby’s life hasn’t been the same since Saturday evening. He’s not sleeping properly. He’s changed his daily routine – no longer using taxis after dark; “taking precautions,” as he puts it, “that I never thought about before.” His work as a filmmaker has ground to a halt. “I’m unable to focus on anything,” he says. “I’m thinking only about how I can stay safe in this situation.”


As NOW’s Rayan Majed reported Tuesday, Abu Gaby (a pseudonym) was one of dozens of Syrian refugees physically assaulted across Lebanon Saturday after news broke of the execution of a second Lebanese Army captive by Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Hearing his Syrian accent in a shared Beirut taxi, a passenger beside him asked him his name. He replied with a fake Armenian one, hoping it would spare him. Brandishing a knife, the passenger then grabbed him by the collar and shook him, saying, “I’m letting you go [only] because you’re Armenian.”


Under the circumstances, Abu Gaby was fortunate: many Syrians suffered far worse in the ethno-sectarian pogroms that ensued from Beirut to the south coast to the eastern Beqaa Valley. Pictures soon surfaced of Syrian refugees and laborers lying on the streets being kicked and beaten by mobs. In one case, residents in Baalbek tied up two men and left them as human roadblocks facing the traffic at the town’s entrance. Meanwhile, gunmen set up flying checkpoints on several Beqaa roads, checking motorists’ IDs and detaining Sunni Muslim passengers, leading one columnist to dub it another “Black Saturday,” in reference to an infamous 1975 massacre of motorists at militia checkpoints based on sectarian identity. Notices appeared on walls in numerous neighborhoods demanding the departure of all Syrians within hours, with one in Beirut’s Zoqaq al-Blat threatening those not complying with “slaughter or torture until death.” Tents in makeshift refugee camps were torched, prompting hundreds of families in Shiite-majority areas of the Beqaa to pack up their tents and flee to Sunni regions.


A sign of how frightened those doubly-displaced refugees are is the lengths they’ve gone to conceal themselves. In Al-Rahma Camp, the largest Syrian refugee settlement in the central Beqaa’s Bar Elias, a representative of the charity running the camp told NOW Tuesday there were no new arrivals as a result of Saturday’s attacks. “I heard they went to Jeb Jenin,” he said. A half-hour drive later, a camp official in Jeb Jenin assured NOW they weren’t there, either. “I have no information on their whereabouts,” he said, echoing what the UNHCR, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the municipalities of three major refugee-hosting towns in the Beqaa, and Human Rights Watch had all said as well. “You have to understand, they’re terrified,” said Nabil al-Halabi, a lawyer and activist who runs a local human rights NGO, LIFE, working with Syrian refugees. “They’re not willing to work with the authorities. They’re not even telling us where they are.”


Indeed, with reports Wednesday that the Lebanese Army itself has begun dismantling camps in the southern Tyre region, refugees’ distrust of Lebanese state institutions may yet grow more pronounced. “I never thought this could happen to me in Lebanon,” Abu Gaby told NOW of his Saturday evening experience. “I had the same feeling as when I was arrested by Syrian intelligence in Damascus. In Lebanon, I now have the same level of fear and worry as I had in Syria.”


Should these events lead to further and long-lasting deteriorations in relations between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts, there could be grave social and political repercussions, analysts told NOW.


“What happened on Saturday is a first sign potentially heralding the breakdown of Lebanese society,” said Hussam Itani, columnist at Al-Hayat newspaper. “It’s very dangerous. We’re in a situation of total disconnection between the government, civil society, and all the middle grounds that could unite the Lebanese people.”


The underlying cause of this crisis, argued Itani, was repeated sectarian and political incitement against Syrian refugees by Lebanese political parties, particularly within the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc.


“These incidents were not spontaneous. They are the result of three-and-a-half years of a discourse opposing the Syrian uprising and the Syrian people’s right to decide their fate, and categorizing the Syrian people as supporters of the Islamic State and opponents of the so-called ‘resistance.’ This created a tense atmosphere that only needed one reason to explode.”


An especial concern for the longer run is the potential future militarization of some Syrian refugees, emulating the history of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees in the 1960s. To be sure, 80% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and children. But the worse the situation becomes, the greater is the chance of a fringe minority developing a desire to take up arms, says Itani.


“This is an important question that very few are thinking of,” he told NOW. “If things get worse, the refugees’ reaction could turn dangerous, and it could turn uncontrollable. The lack of organization of the refugees makes them vulnerable to political manipulation.”


“They might today be occupied with their daily life problems, but this doesn’t mean they might not one day join the political battlefield and defend their interests.”


Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

At least 170 families are reported to have fled Shiite-majority areas in the Beqaa Valley for safety in Sunni regions (Joseph Eid/AFP)

I never thought this could happen to me in Lebanon,' Abu Gaby told NOW of his Saturday evening experience. 'I had the same feeling as when I was arrested by Syrian intelligence in Damascus. In Lebanon, I now have the same level of fear and worry as I had in Syria.'"

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Just like the Palestinian refugees belong to Israel, the Syrian refugees belong in Syria. One can get entangled in byzantine arguments about who is to blame and all the fake human rights questions; the bottom line is that Lebanon is not obligated to self-destruct - yet again - because of foreign refugees. We've been down this road before with the Palestinian refugees, and we seem not to have learned the lesson. Any bleeding hearted European or Arab or American who really cares for the refugees should dispatch transport planes and ships to the Lebanese coast to evacuate all these refugees to their own safe havens that are remote from the Syrian border, instead of lecturing the already tormented Lebanese on how to welcome hateful refugees (lest we forget, these Syrian refugees are the same people who occupied Lebanon and shelled, killed, kidnapped, and otherwise plundered Lebanon during 35 years). In their new host - and far wealthier than Lebanon - countries, the refugees can wait indefinitely until the situation in Syria is resolved. Lebanon cannot and should not bear their burden. You can stress people for so long before they explode and take matters in their own hands, and yes, a new civil war is looming in Lebanon, but no pontifications by Alex Rowell or others about the sex of angels can preempt the looming disaster. The best solution is for the Syrian refugees to immediately return to Syria and fend for, and defend, themselves as best as they could. Mathematically, the potential death toll from such a salutatory move will be far less than letting the refugees settle in Lebanon and incubate another catastrophic war in this country. Many more Palestinians died in the 7-year long Lebanese war than during the 60-year old Israeli occupation of Palestine. Had the Palestinians stayed in Palestine, they'd be much better off today. Same thing for the Syrian refugees.

    September 11, 2014