BEIRUT: Calls for Syrians in Lebanon to return to their country have become a deeply divisive politicized issue over the decade-long civil war in Syria, one which has recently been exacerbated by the upcoming election in Syria.
On Thursday, groups of angry Lebanese beat up Syrian expatriates and refugees heading to the Syrian embassy to cast their votes for next Wednesday's election, and threw stones at their vehicles, outraged over what they perceive as an organized vote for Assad. There have been rumors that Hezbollah organized transport for voters from across Lebanon to the embassy.
Assad is running for a fourth term, facing symbolic competition from two other candidates in a vote that is all but guaranteed to see him continue as president.
The Syrian opposition — as well as many Western and Arab countries — see the election as a sham designed to give Assad’s reign a veneer of legitimacy. The election also violates UN resolutions that call for a new constitution before a presidential vote.
Lebanon hosts 865,531 registered Syrian refugees, and there are several hundred thousand Syrians residing in Lebanon with their families as daily or seasonal workers.
Syrians in Lebanon include regime supporters and opposition figures who fled to Lebanon because of the war. Lebanon is in the midst of a severe economic crisis and is calling for Syrian refugees to return to their country because of the high cost of hosting them.
The roads leading to the embassy area in Yarzeh were congested with cars and buses loaded with voters since early Thursday morning. Many chanted slogans in support of Assad and the regime army, waving Syrian flags and carrying pictures of Assad. They confirmed to the media before and after the polls that they had voted for Assad.
Many Lebanese people reacted angrily to this. Members of the Lebanese Forces party went to the coastal highway that connects northern Lebanon with Beirut, and blocked cars carrying pictures of Assad, or Syrian flags, or banners for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) — an ally of the Syrian regime, smashed car windows, and assaulted their occupants.
They told the media: “They are loyal to Assad, so why are they still in Lebanon as refugees?”
Members of the Lebanese Forces party also said that Assad-supporting Syrians should have their refugee status removed.
Similar scenes took place in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood, where young Lebanese men chased a car displaying the Syrian flag. The Lebanese army intervened to separate the two sides.
Fifty-four-year-old Mohsen Saleh Al-Ahmad died while traveling by bus from Chtaura, Bekaa, to the embassy. According to official preliminary investigations, he had a heart attack.
Since Thursday morning’s events, the army has tightened security in and around the Syrian Embassy, which is located in the vicinity of the Ministry of Defense and the Army Command, and on the roads leading to it.
But further clashes broke out in the afternoon, this time instigated by Syrians, who reportedly got off the buses transporting them along the coastal road near Nahr Al-Kalb and proceeded to assault passers-by and throw stones at cars, injuring several people, including journalists from MTV.
Some Lebanese politicians were quick to condemn the actions of pro-Assad Syrian voters.
Former minister May Chidiac said: “They claim to be displaced and are calling on the international community to support them with fresh dollars while they are an additional burden on Lebanon’s overstretched economy! At the doors of the Syrian embassy, they are chanting for Bashar Assad. As long as you are not threatened, go back to where you came from.”
Another former minister, Richard Kouyoumdjian, said: “Swear allegiance to Bashar Assad in your country, not in ours. You are opportunists and you are not displaced.”
But former Hezbollah MP Nawar Al-Sahili described attacks on Syrian voters as demonstrating “racism and a lack of integrity.”
Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul Karim Ali said those attacks were “painful, and we refer (them) to the concerned authorities” and called on Lebanon “to cooperate to find quick exits for the return of the Syrians to their country.”
The Syrian diplomat said that the large number of voters “reflects the desire of Syrian people to return to a safety that they have not found outside Syria.”
Lisa Abu Khaled, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Arab News: “The UNHCR has received reports of incidents involving pressure, threats, and harassment affecting Syrian refugees in Lebanon and in relation to the Syrian presidential elections. The reported incidents range from confiscation of documents to threats of physical harm.”
She added: “Voting is a personal choice and is not linked to refugee status, nor to a person’s need for international protection. Voting will not lead to the loss of refugee status. The UNHCR has received reports of intimidation and pressure, which may have pushed a number of refugees to participate in the elections.
“The UNHCR is a non-political humanitarian organization, and therefore does not play any role in the Syrian elections,” she continued. “That said, if and when incidents of threats and pressure are reported by refugees, we work with the concerned stakeholders in Lebanon to ensure that refugees continue to be protected in Lebanon.”
Not all Syrian refugees in Lebanon exercised their right to vote. Abu Ahmad, a camp supervisor in a refugee camp in Arsal, told Arab News: “Most people are not interested. There may be some who voted at the embassy, but they do not (symbolize) a collective conviction. Refugees are frustrated and cannot forget their suffering and the horrors they experienced during their displacement.
“What has changed now? How can Assad be re-elected? On what basis? People were hoping for some change to happen, but what is happening is the polishing of the image of Bashar Assad in front of the international community,” he continued. “Maintaining my strength today is more beneficial than wasting my time in front of the ballot box. Here, I feel safe even though I am homeless.”
Caretaker Social Affairs and Tourism Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh, who visited Syria a few weeks ago and discussed the return of refugees, denounced “all the infringements that have occurred and are unjustified,” and said that “protecting (Syrian voters) is our priority.”
Former MP Khaled Al-Daher, who has been a major advocate for Syrian refugees in Lebanon in the past, said on Thursday: “Anyone who wants to elect Bashar Assad from among the refugees in Lebanon will not have refugee status and must leave the Lebanese territories because they have no problem with the Syrian regime, but are in Lebanon for specific goals and objectives.”