BEIRUT — Hezbollah is on a collision course with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, surprisingly, over the fate of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have been living in Lebanon since 2011.
The Shia party argues that many of the refugees are secret affiliates of radical jihadis Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) and sees them as a security threat to Lebanon.
Hezbollah claims that at least 43% of the refugees are from Syrian towns and cities that are now safe, as they are included in the de-conflict zones that were agreed upon at the latest round of ceasefire talks in Astana. Hariri insists on keeping the refugees in Lebanon on humanitarian grounds, arguing that arrest or death awaits them if they cross the border, as many fall broadly within the anti-regime camp in Syria or are related to the armed opposition.
A series of unfortunate and reportedly deliberate events disrupted the ruined lives of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making them feel very unwanted. In early July, back-to-back fires broke out at a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, destroying more than 20 tents and killing one child. Many Syrians said the fire was sabotage by Lebanese associates of the Damascus regime.
Simultaneously, the Lebanese Army raided the town of Arsal in north-eastern Lebanon, a hub for Syrian refugees. Four Syrians set off explosives, killing themselves, during battles with the Lebanese Army and four others were arrested. On July 4, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying that all of the Syrians involved had died in custody due to “poor health conditions.” On July 14, Human Rights Watch claimed that a fifth Syrian detainee had died in prison.
The following day, the Lebanese Army said that 356 Syrians were in custody, 56 for prosecution and 257 for lack of proper residency papers. Photos went viral on social media of Syrian refugees squatting with hands behind their heads and backs, being maltreated by Lebanese military personnel.
Angry Syrian refugees teamed up, preparing to stage a loud demonstration against the Lebanese Army, a protest halted by Interior Minister Nihad Machnouk. This infuriated Lebanese public opinion. Activists accused the Syrians wanting to demonstrate of being ungrateful and of insulting the official military institution of the Lebanese republic. Some Syrians condemned the move, saying that, as guests, it was not their right to criticise any form of official Lebanon.
A similar situation emerged in Egypt in 2013 when Syrians took to the streets in support of the toppled regime of President Muhammad Morsi, prompting Egyptian authorities to have them locked up and deported.
Speaking to MTV Lebanon, Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Muin al-Murebi said: “Syrian intelligence are behind the suspicious call for a demonstration against the Lebanese Army.”
On July 18, a video depicting two Lebanese beating a Syrian refugee and cursing him for wanting to demonstrate against the Lebanese Army went viral. The Lebanese are shown insulting the refugee, accusing him of being an agent for the Islamic State (ISIS). The video further enflamed emotions on both sides of the spectrum.
All this went hand in hand with a systematic online campaign in the Beirut media, especially in pro-Hezbollah outlets, accusing refugees of draining the economy and of “stealing food from the mouth of the Lebanese.” Lengthy articles were published showing how much of a security threat the refugees had become and how depleted the Lebanese economy was becoming, as it provided Syrian refugees with shelter, schools, water and electricity.
Hezbollah figures accused the Hariri team of lobbying for the refugees’ stay because they attract huge economic assistance from abroad, money that is often illegally pocketed by profiteers and merchants of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Earlier in the year, for example, Lebanon officially requested $11.5 billion-$13.8 billion from the European Union for humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees. The European Union has already allocated $634.6 million.
Hezbollah claims that very little of that money ended up in the Syrian camps. The influential Beirut daily An-Nahar reported that the Syrian refugees have become “the goose that has the golden egg,” unleashing a “fountain of corruption” in Lebanon.
Members of the Saudi-backed Hariri camp argue that Hezbollah wants them out because it doesn’t see them as 1.5 million souls but, rather, as “1.5 million Sunnis” who challenge Hezbollah’s demographic superiority in Lebanon. They strongly deny accusations of profiteering at the expense of the Syrian refugees.
Hezbollah has been trying to push the Syrians back into Syria at least since early 2015. Strict regulations were imposed by the Hezbollah-backed Directorate of General Security, forcing refugees to obtain a residency permit that cost up to $1,000, which is more than what ordinary refugee households can afford. Only 21% of them stayed behind and paid the amount, compared to 58% in 2015-16.
Additionally, many were insulted and maltreated on the borders, and measures were imposed preventing the arrival of new refugees. Any Syrian wanting to cross the Syrian-Lebanese border under Hezbollah’s watchful eye had to prove financial independence by presenting authorities with a valid hotel reservation or plane ticket, proving that he was a tourist or passer-by rather than a refugee-in-the-making, and to show a valid bank account or $1,000 in cash.
If these measures are not enough to convince the refugees to pack up and leave, then more intimidation is likely to follow, ranging from arrests and curfews on Syrians to expelling them from schools and making them feel more and more unwelcome in Lebanon.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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