In the office of the former general turned self-styled humanitarian, concerned locals and Syrian refugees talk of taking up arms to defend a country they believe the national army will not.
“If you do not protect our land, we will create a resistance to protect our land,” said former general Hameed Hamoud, outlining the message he had been trying to deliver to the government in Beirut concerning repeated incursions by the Syrian military into Lebanese territory.
“We’ve been trying to make them aware that if they do nothing it will create chaos across our country.”
In his small office in Tripoli, the northern port that is Lebanon’s poorest city and the stronghold of Sunni support for former prime minister Saad Hariri, MPs from Hariri’s Future Movement nodded their approval while a delegation from the eastern Bekaa Valley border town of Arsal had travelled more than 100km to voice their concerns.
Also present was a representative of the estimated 5,000 Syrians who have fled to Lebanon to escape the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters demanding President Bashar al-Assad step down. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says more than 3,500 people have died since the uprising began in March.
Since the initial influx, hundreds of Syrians have gone back, but others continue coming and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says more than 3,500 Syrians are registered in Lebanon. Because many are not official, actual numbers are likely to be higher. In addition, registered or not, the Lebanese government considers Syrians in the country to be internally displaced, leaving them with an ambiguous legal status.
Ransacking in Arsal
According to activists, both legal and illegal crossings are closely guarded, and escapees are risking their lives, whether entering or leaving Lebanon. Indeed, the delegation from Arsal claimed the Syrian military had been crossing the non-demarcated border into Lebanon almost daily over the past few months, shooting at water tanks and ransacking farmhouses.
“They are looking for Syrians but there are no Syrians there. It’s like they want to mobilize people to fight back,” said Ahmed al-Fleete, deputy mayor of Arsal. “People there are farmers, not military. But if they have their own guns they might shoot back.”
n a later interview, the mayor of Arsal, Ali Hojairi, said locals had been in armed clashes with Syrian troops inside Lebanon three times in the past few months. “If the Lebanese army will not protect us we will use our arms to protect ourselves,” he said.
On 6 October, Syrian troops penetrated Lebanese territory and killed a Syrian national on Lebanese soil, according to a report by the UN Secretary-General on the implementation of Resolution 1559, aimed at strengthening Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence.
The Arsal delegation said they had sent a complaint over the escalation in long-standing border violations by the Syrian military – a subject of concern in the UN report – to their local representatives in the regional capital Baalbek.
But with Baalbek controlled by Shia militant group Hezbollah, a long-standing ally of the Syrian regime, which in June forced the resignation of Hariri’s government, neither Fleete, nor Hamoud nor any of Hariri’s MPs believed concerns over Syrian incursions were being heard by the Hezbollah-led government in Beirut. Syrian defectors and dissidents have also allegedly been arrested by the Lebanese army and sent back to Syria.
“We don’t feel safe in Lebanon,” said the representative of the exiled Syrians, who asked to be known only as Abu Omar.
“Refugees come to my home and now it is watched. I was interrogated by the police who wanted to know why people come and go from my house, saying they would hand me over to Syria.”
No concrete figures exist for the numbers of Syrian refugees who have either been killed by Syrian troops on Lebanese soil or arrested in Lebanon and deported back to Syria.
While Lebanon’s Higher Relief Council has been providing some basic assistance to the Syrians, many of whom are housed in disused schools with little or no heating or running water, the government’s refusal to recognize them as refugees means they are not entitled to the full care and protection of UNHCR.
They complain that assistance is waning and that they cannot earn a living for fear of arrest or kidnapping if they leave their shelters.
“We need to make some money,” said one, who has been staying with his wife and children in the remote town of Wadi Khaled, along the Syrian border, in a school-turned-shelter for approximate 400 people. “We tried to leave [Wadi Khaled] for work, but we were stopped by the Lebanese army,” he said.
“Just last week, two of our friends were kidnapped… at night, we are especially scared,” he added.
In October, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati promised to cater to the Syrians’ needs, but Lebanon’s politicians remain divided on Syria’s uprising, and the Lebanese government primarily supports Assad’s clampdown. Rumours of complicity between Lebanese and Syrian authorities abound.
As a result, Syrians are often faced with harsh treatment from Lebanese authorities, according to Nabil Halabi, a Lebanese human rights lawyer. In addition to security threats, daily needs are not adequately met, said Halabi, who has criticized the Lebanese government’s aid to the refugees.
On 9 November, Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman said Syrian officials had been in contact and promised to respect Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. “Syria expressed regret for the unintended violations,” Sleiman said in remarks published by Al-Liwaa newspaper.
He also confirmed Syrian troops had laid mines along sections of the Syrian side of the border, particularly in the northeast. A source close to Sleiman’s office told local English-language The Daily Star that senior Lebanese and Syrian officials had formed a follow-up committee to discuss recent alleged incursions into Lebanon.
Prime Minister Mikati had earlier admitted that Syrian nationals had disappeared on Lebanese soil, while Internal Security Forces Commander Major General Ashraf Rifi alleged his officers had uncovered proof that members of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut had played a role in abductions.
Having resigned from the military in protest at the Hezbollah-led armed takeover of parts of Beirut in May 2008, which the army did nothing to stop, Hamoud accused the Iranian-financed group of serving Syria’s interests by ignoring Syrian military incursions and warned of rival Hariri and Hezbollah groups arming in Tripoli.