IT'S JUST BEFORE DUSK on the small farm surrounded by patches of semi-arable land in the enclave of Masharih Al Qaa in northern Lebanon – which extends like a finger into Syria – a couple of hundred meters from a swath of houses that define the Lebanon-Syria border. This is where Abu Muhammad and his family now live (along with up to 20 other refugees at any given time) after fleeing their homes in Syria.
Occasional cracks of sniper fire ring out across the fields while the hollow noise of air strikes rumbles on the other side of the border in Al Qusayr, just a few kilometers away. “They’ve cleared those houses along the border,” says Muhammad, gesturing ahead. “They’ll shoot you if you get too close.”
Muhammad has decided to show me around while it’s still light. “The fighting increases at night,” he explains.
Almost daily, the Syrian army fires artillery over Masharih Al Qaa – home to a predominantly Sunni population, with a few pockets of Maronites – into the city of Al Qusayr and its surrounds just across the border, where air strikes from attack helicopters and fighter jets have been bombarding the city sporadically throughout the days while rapidly escalating through the evenings, rattling the surrounding villages well into the nights and early mornings. Though Al Qusayr takes the brunt of the attacks, it’s common for stray shells or indiscriminate fire to come down in Masharih Al Qaa.
“They shelled the house.” Muhammad points to a basketball-sized hole in the concrete of his roof. He has a bandage wrapped around his hand where some shrapnel pierced him. Walking towards one of the farm’s generators, he adds, “They’re mostly random acts of shelling and bombing. They shell the houses, the yards, the kids. They don’t have a problem with destroying anyone or anything, just bomb right and left, without having a particular target.”
Many of the Lebanese inhabitants of Masharih Al Qaa have left (around half of them, according to reports). Most made agreements with Syrian families to take care of the houses and farms in exchange for shelter. But it’s a fragile existence for the refugees. Muhammad says Syrian soldiers routinely cross over into Lebanon to take supplies, (including most of his goats – 25 so far and only a few remain). That’s just one of the benefits the soldiers have gained from clearing the houses on the border. “They steal beds, mattresses, refrigerators, washing machines, [and] generators,” he explains.
We reach the generator. The wires have been cut.
OVER 21 MONTHS HAVE PASSED since the peaceful protests in Damascus and the southern city of Deraa which marked the start of the uprising in Syria and quickly spread across the country – only to be met with brutal force by President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in its attempt to crush the political dissidence of a widely disenfranchised population.
The rebellion – like so many across the Middle East and North Africa – seems inevitable in hindsight; with long-time despotic leaders being challenged, and those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya ultimately being toppled one after the other.
What has set the conflict in Syria apart from other events of the Arab Spring, however, is the underlying tension at its periphery, a tension that threatens to destabilize the region. It’s most notable causes are cross-border violence and massive influxes of refugees into the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, plus almost 10,000 in Egypt. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the number of registered Syrian refugees in these countries at 453,022, with another 84,679 awaiting registration as of December 20th.
In Lebanon, up to that same date, there were 122,366 Syrians registered with the UNHCR (with an additional 42,260 in contact to be registered); a huge increase from just over 10,000 a year ago. The main problem is that only 120,000 refugees were expected to be in the country by the end of 2012. This projected number – which in turn dictates the amount of funding and supplies allocated to the UNHCR by partnering aid organizations – had to be revised in March, July, September, and again in December, each time consistently surpassing all estimates.
Even with those new revisions, the majority of refugees in Lebanon are still not receiving much-needed aid. Of the dozens I’ve spoken to, most say they’ve been in Lebanon for months and haven’t received any material support. For the few that have, it’s not nearly enough. It doesn’t help – a prominent Syrian activist, who asks to remain anonymous, tells me in Tripoli – that most of the papers issued by UNHCR state only that the individual has applied for registration, not that he or she is an official refugee. When attempting to travel to Beirut – at the time there was no UNHCR office in Tripoli – he was stopped at a military checkpoint and asked for his papers, he says. When he handed them over, the soldiers laughed and asked, “You think these matter here?”
As we’re talking, activists from the March 14 alliance (a collection of Lebanese groups and individuals united against the Syrian regime) are in clear view downtown, just across from the UNHCR office. They’re using UNHCR tents to stage their protest.
Ideally, refugees would be using those tents. But there are no established camps in Lebanon. At the moment, the majority of Syrian refugees are either placed with host families, or they’re renting rooms out of abandoned schools and shelters for inflated prices in the north of the country, a region in which the population is largely Sunni. Most of these shelters are, at best, barely habitable; many lack electricity, running water, walls, and – even more pressing – any way to keep warm.
The UNHCR’s representative for Lebanon, Ninette Kelley, explains the difficulties of meeting the constantly increasing needs of refugees as they arrive each day, and the challenges that come with it: “The needs are expanding as the numbers increase,” she says. Each new revision sees less money available per person. And, each time, “it’s a re-evaluation, a re-estimate of what needs to be done in order to provide effective protection assistance to refugees.”
But it’s not just the increasing number of refugees that’s offsetting the unmet funding goals (from $83 million in March, to $487 million in December), the complicated state of the world economy makes it difficult for the governments who pledge to contribute funds to keep up. “These are difficult financial times for many governments. So although many governments have been very generous, they’re not able to meet needs because these needs are so enormous,” Kelley tells Rolling Stone. She adds that another part of the problem is, “the government infrastructure [in Lebanon] itself is not a strong one because they don’t have any framework and any administrative layers to deal with refugee crisis.” She describes the government’s participation as, “cooperative, yes; proactive, no. Because of their weak capacities.”
Kelley describes how the UNHCR operates: “We don’t do a lot of direct implementation, we always usually use partners for a good reason; they have their networks, they know the communities, and they are people who are established there.” If there aren’t enough funds to meet all the various organizations’ requests, Kelley says, “we have to prioritize certain interventions over others – so we always prioritize lifesaving for example.” At the moment, the top priority is refurbishing shelters so refugees don’t freeze in the cold winter, she says. It’s a very real threat, as I discover in a small village near Qobayat, to the north of Tripoli, where Farhan lives with 22 others (13 of them children) in a cramped apartment of around 80 square meters. There is no electricity, no water, a few thin mattresses and a couple of blankets. Farhan explains they’ve received no aid. He has managed to find work only one or two days a week – making seven to 10 dollars a day. His rent is $130 a month. He is currently more than $400 in debt with no end in sight. One of his younger daughters spots the green tripod I use for my camera. She starts to cry. Farhan tells me not to worry: “She thought you had an RPG to kill us.”
We walk a few minutes down the road to an unfinished concrete structure where two families live. They, too, have no electricity or water. Nor do they have doors and windows. The floor is bare except for one rug and a few blankets. Rent is $400 for the 10 people who live here (six are children and one of the mothers is six months pregnant). There is little medicine available. The two families have mounting debt and they have been waiting for an interview with UNHCR since September.
IT'S NOT ONLY REFUGEES who find shelter at Abu Muhammad’s farm in Masharih Al Qaa, though. It (along with numerous other houses scattered across the north of Lebanon) also functions as a safe house for soldiers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the main armed opposition to Bashar Al Assad’s regime.
Muhammad explains that fighters come here to rest for a while, taking a break from the war and to gather much-needed supplies to take back to Syria. Muhammad claims, “Those who come over are not actively fighting because the FSA insists that those who cross over into Lebanon, leave their weapons behind.” His claims are backed up by multiple sources, including Hezbollah contacts.
While we talk, two FSA soldiers have been sitting in the corner against a bare, concrete wall, smoking cigarettes and listening to a handheld radio transceiver. One of them plays with a 23mm round on the floor. It was, they say, fired from a MiG – the Russian attack plane used by the Syrian Air Force – but it stuck in the mud next to them, which prevented it from exploding.
The two men, like Muhammad and most people involved with the rebellion, use aliases in order to protect their families from any reprisals by the regime. “We’re listening to the radios to stay updated on what’s happening on the Syrian side,” says one of them, Abu Ali. He claims this is how they learned that 13 fighters from the Lebanon-based Shia Islamic militia Hezbollah had been captured by the FSA, and that three of them were from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (such claims have routinely been disputed by Hezbollah).
The extent of Hezbollah’s on-ground military support for Assad had been ambiguous until recently, when Ali Hussein Nassif, a founding member of the group, was confirmed in a statement by Hezbollah to have been killed in Syria on October 1st “performing his jihadist duty.” The ongoing appearance of obituaries of fighters containing no explanations of the reason behind their deaths suggests that the most dominant political and military group in Lebanon is playing a much larger role in Syria than many believed.
That night at Muhammad’s home in Al Qaa, it is obvious there is outgoing fire from Lebanon into Syria. And it doesn’t appear to be coming from the positions of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The barrage of rockets, artillery and gunfire looks like it’s coming from Hermal, known as a bastion of Hezbollah forces.
A week later, I meet Abu Al Bieda, a weapons smuggler whose inventory has now expanded to include food and medical supplies. He drives through winding alleyways and back roads to a position where we can see Katyushas (multiple rocket launchers) being fired from Hermal, in Lebanon, towards Al Qusayr, assisting regime forces in their siege upon the city, and confirming that forces inside Lebanon are waging war on Syrian citizens.
SUCH ACTIONS HAVE ONLY BROADENED the already wide Sunni-Shia divide in Lebanon. Over the past few months there has been an increase in the (regularly on-and-off) fighting in the Northern city of Tripoli between the majority Sunni population and the small Alawite community – an offshoot of Shia Islam (and the sect to which Bashar Al Assad belongs). And the conflict is spreading to the south: Wissam Al Hassan, a general in Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces who was investigating Hezbollah’s and the Syrian regime’s role in the February 2005 assassination of businessman and ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, was himself assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut on October 19th; and when two supporters of the Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmad Al Assir were killed by Hezbollah fighters in a gunfight on November 12th, the sheikh responded by announcing he was considering the formation of an armed military Sunni faction to oppose Hezbollah. He has since “postponed” those plans, likely because he’s been reminded of Hezbollah’s military strength.
The rise in such internal conflicts – and the likelihood of more (predominantly Sunni) refugees crossing from Syria – raises the ugly prospect of another brutal sectarian war, which could destabilize not just Lebanon, but the wider region.
Ultimately, how the Syrian refugees are integrated – or not – into Lebanese society will play a key role in deciding the country’s fate for the near future. At the moment, unfortunately, the Lebanese government seems paralyzed by indecision on the matter.
The reasons for its inaction are, undoubtedly, tied into the influx of Palestinian refugees that Lebanon witnessed in the early Seventies. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) first came to Lebanon following the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which granted Palestinian groups the right to operate in Lebanon following their expulsion from Jordan. But the Cairo Agreement unintentionally created a state within a state, moving the approximately 300,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanese control to that of the PLO. This threatened the balance of power and – many have argued – was one of the key factors for the start of the Lebanese Civil War. That still-raw memory is likely ever-present in the minds of those who govern Lebanon. And the influx and permanent presence of Sunni groups from Syria – many of whom are connected in some way to the uprising – will be seen by many in power as a threat to the country’s stability.
Dr. Paul Salem, director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, laid out a daunting declaration in a recent paper: “If the number of refugees jumps dramatically, or if Syrian refugees become more widely politicized and armed, the Syrian refugee presence could become as destabilizing as the Palestinian refugee presence was in Lebanon in the 1970s.”
Laws established in the Seventies are meant to ensure that a Sunni majority can’t be established in Lebanon. There are regulations stating that no Palestinian refugee has the right to own property, become a naturalized citizen, or have access to national healthcare services. They are still banned from working in ‘skilled’ jobs including medicine, engineering and law. And the same declarations that were meant to minimize the threat of hundreds of thousands of new Sunni voters will now apply to the ever-growing number of Syrian refugees.
As Salem explained, it’s a status quo the authorities will fight to maintain: “The state is weak, sectarian relations are fraught and easily inflammable, and the main political coalitions in the country either explicitly back or oppose the regime of Bashar Al Assad,” he wrote, adding, “The danger of instability in Lebanon relates to Sunni-Shia tensions and Sunni discontent about Hezbollah’s dominance.”
In addition to the sectarian divides, Salem listed other factors that threaten the stability and security of the country, including, “increasing Sunni radicalization, a spiral of kidnappings, clashes along parts of the Lebanon-Syria border, a growing Syrian refugee crisis, and targeted assassinations.”
There are credible reports of the General Security Forces sporadically raiding homes, intimidating and beating young Syrians they believe to be working with the FSA. This is just one of many reasons that refugees don’t want to venture down from the north, even if they do manage to get hold of one of the circulation permits required to leave designated areas there.
BACK AT THE FARM, Muhammad takes a pull from a cigarette and sips some tea. It’s a moment of relative silence; the radio chatter and the latest news from Syria on the television fade into the background of the dimly lit room while volleys of gunfire echo across the border. Then the fusillade of rockets and bombs violently increases. Muhammad stifles a worried yell to turn out the lights.
It’s an all-too-familiar moment lately; a reminder of a growing war they can only partially escape. It brings into focus the harsh reality that even if (or, more likely, when) the regime falls, Syria seems set only to plunge into further chaos, as multiple factions scrabble for control.
I ask Muhammad if he’ll return to his homeland. He doesn’t give a clear answer. He mentions his home was flattened by an air strike. “It’s going to be a long struggle because the Syrian regime turned the whole situation into a sectarian war. And there are people who support [Al Assad] with that.” He pauses. “A long struggle, I tell you.”