Syrian Fighting Sparks Tensions in Lebanon

Lebanon has long been squeezed between its more powerful neighbors, Israel and Syria. As the fighting in Syria escalates, the violence is spilling over into Lebanon and raising new fears that Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance could be disrupted.

The UN says an estimated 30,000 Syrian refugees have already fled the fighting in Syria. Lebanon’s relief agency has suspended its funding of treatment for wounded Syrians who cross the border, saying they can no longer afford to treat them. Lebanese officials say the cost of providing medical care has reached surpassed one million dollars per month –beyond the limitations of the nation’s budget.

As more refugees flee the fighting in Syria, some Lebanese are becoming resentful of the new arrivals.

Hussein, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his family which is still in Syria, fled Damascus three months ago. He says he was wanted by the government of Bashar Al-Assad for “participation in resistance activities.” While he says he has not encountered overt discrimination, Hussein, an architect says he has not been able to find a job.

“I’ve sent out more than 50 resumes and I only got one response, saying they didn’t have any work for me,” he told The Media Line. “It may be partly the economy, but it’s mainly the fact that I’m Syrian.”

He says that other Syrian friends have received rude comments. As the fighting continues, the numbers of Syrians fleeing has increased.

“The border between Syria and Lebanon has always been very porous,” Ella Wind, a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut told The Media Line. “Anyone who is wanted in Syria just pays a bribe and comes to Lebanon. Almost every taxi driver you meet today is from Syria.”

Wind says there have always been tensions between the Lebanese and Syrian refugees.

“There’s a perception that the Syrian workers are poorer, more backward, or more conservative,” she said. “These workers are often treated badly and looked down upon.”

Lebanon fought a bloody civil war from 1975 – 1990 and divisions over the conflict in Syria continue. The Shi’ite-led government in Lebanon, which wants to preserve its relationship with Syria and Iran, as well as Hizbullah’s large arsenal of weapons and missiles, has supported the Assad government. The pro-Western, Sunni-dominated opposition has been against Assad.

The Lebanese government has so far not recognized Syrians fleeing the fighting as “refugees” and it does not want most of them to stay. With a population of 4.2 million, Lebanon is wary of being over-run by refugees. Lebanon already has some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, who have lived for decades in refugee camps, and have not been allowed to become citizens. The Lebanese are concerned that large numbers of Syrian refugees could disrupt the balance between Muslims, Christians and Druze that has been maintained since the end of the civil war.

That civil war also prompted Syria’s occupation of Lebanon which continued until the assassination of popular former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in 2005. Many Lebanese believe Syria was behind the assassination, although Syria has denied all responsibility. After the assassination, a popular uprising called the Cedar Revolution, swept through Lebanon, and Syria was forced to withdraw.

The fighting in Syria has already begun to spill over into Lebanon, especially into the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Sectarian fighting between supporters and opponents of Bashar Al-Assad left at least nine people dead. Fighting has also broken out in Beirut, although the government moved quickly to stop it.

“Lebanon has always had this split between pro- and anti-Syrian forces, but now you feel this dichotomy more strongly,” Ella Wind of the Carnegie Endowment said. “Tripoli has already been dragged into the fighting and people in Beirut try to say it won’t happen. But one spark could just ignite everything here.”

The Media Line