As Syrian refugees flood Lebanon, security worries grow

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 3, 2013 

— With more than 700,000 Syrian refugees jammed into a country of fewer than 4 million that already was hosting an estimated 500,000 Syrian guest workers, tensions are rising in Lebanon, which was deeply divided even before civil war broke out in its neighbor to the east.

Three major security incidents involving car bombs, as well as a slew of smaller or unreported incidents throughout the country, have put the Lebanese back into familiar territory of not only fearing a wave of disruptive refugees – the last came in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who’ve never left fled the creation of Israel – but also facing political uncertainty that many here blame on foreigners pressing their regional aspirations.

“They’re everywhere,” Michel Abukhayr said of the refugees. “Are they ever leaving? Or will they stay forever like the Palestinians did and force their wars and culture on us?

Abukhayr describes himself as a onetime vehement opponent of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But now he sees the arrival of the refugees as a nightmare that’s weakened Lebanon’s tourist-based economy, and he admits to agreeing with Assad’s assessment of the president’s enemies as terrorists.

“I hate Assad,” Abukhayr said, “but he’s right about a lot of these people: They’re violent, they’re (extremists) and between them and Hezbollah they will destroy this country. Again.”

In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a stronghold of mostly Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, the militant group’s support for Assad is seen as a hedge against the regional aspirations of Saudi Arabia and Sunni Muslim ideologues aligned with al Qaida.

After two recent car bombings, Hezbollah instituted tough security measures to enter the southern neighborhoods that only the most security-conscious and efficient political and military movement in the Arab world could impose. Checkpoints mark all major entrances, and roving bands of gunmen check identification and license tags against an internal list of suspected bombers. Teams of Hezbollah militiamen range through the area at night with bomb-sniffing dogs, leaving residents feeling under siege and only slightly safer.

“I’d rather die in a car bomb than wait in this traffic every day for two hours on my way home from work,” said a schoolteacher from the area who would identify herself only as Sally for security reasons. As her mother chided her, she backed off the claim, but only slightly.

“Hezbollah says these measures are for our own protection, and I understand that terrorists – Israeli or Syrian – want to target the resistance,” she conceded. “But they need to go and find these people before they come here. Then we won’t need to sit in these lines and wait all night in the heat just to go home.”

“She’s right,” said Abu Reda, a unit commander for Hezbollah in Rweiss, a neighborhood that was hit by a massive blast last month, killing dozens of people and destroying several apartment buildings. “We can’t stop each bomb. We’re also looking for the bombers themselves, just like the Americans had to do in Iraq. You can’t stop every bomb, but you can kill or arrest every bomb maker. And we’re working closely with the government to do that.”

The security concerns also have become a rallying cry for less established organizations.

The predominantly middle-class neighborhood of Hamra – itself swollen with thousands of Syrian refugees – has seen a newly aggressive posture by members of the Nazi-themed Syrian Social Nationalist Party, whose deep support for the Assad regime has manifested itself with a near-takeover of several streets around the group’s headquarters.

Even before the latest crisis, the group had been deeply unpopular among many Hamra residents due to the perception that it was less political than crime-oriented, with local merchants often complaining of protection rackets and shakedowns. As the current crisis has unfolded, the group has deployed even more aggressively around its offices, setting up roadblocks and outfitting its members in militia-style uniforms that hark back to Hamra’s brutal civil war history from 1975 to 1990.

A similar phenomenon has struck the northern city of Tripoli, which was hit last month by the worst car bombing since 1985, killing and wounding more than 500 people. There, however, the villains are conservative Sunni gunmen who consider themselves rebels against the Syrian regime.

Although Tripoli has long been plagued by bands of gunmen from both sides playing out their rivalries over the Assad government, since the bomb there’s been an increase in checkpoints run by strangers who are clearly not with the police.

“We feel like prisoners,” according to Umm Zafer, who used a nickname to preserve her anonymity and, she hopes, her security. “But this is Lebanon. It’s never the government here, but the militias are back.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

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