Concerns grow in Lebanon about Syrian war impact – RTÉ World Report

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Refugee children at the Dalhamieh camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Refugee children at the Dalhamieh camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

TRIPOLI, LEBANON – Refugee *Ahmed Assam drives a bus in Tripoli, manning a daily run from Lebanon’s second city to towns and villages outside. He’s staying with relatives, who helped him find the job, but he’s lost touch with his siblings in Homs, one of many Ground Zeroes in Syria’s brutal civil war.

He is worried. “I haven’t heard from them for many months,” he laments, adding that “there are people coming from there to here every day, but no word about my family.

Zooming in on a photo on his mobile phone – a young man sat diffidently on a garden chair – Assam says, “my brother, he’s dead, killed by the army.”

“My cousin,” he continues, scrolling to another photo – of a bearded, baseball-capped and heavily-muscled militia cadre holding an AK-47. “He fight, he fight Assad,” says Assam, drawing a finger across his throat.

Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon don’t stay in camps, but with relatives or work contacts, and for many of the mostly-Sunni Muslim refugees fleeing fighting around Syrian towns such as Homs, cross-border links with Lebanon are long-standing.

It’s not just refugees crossing the frontier, however. On April 3, Syria’s airforce attacked Arsal, a town in northeast Lebanon which hosts around 20000 refugees, saying that rebels were sheltering there.

Eight years after Syria’s Army withdrew from Lebanon, after being accused of murdering Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, there are growing fears that Lebanon could get dragged into Syria’s war.

There have been murky tit-for-tat kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon – often in the Bekaa Valley – members of the Alawite minority of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, likely taken by rebels, and Syrian Sunnis lifted in turn government forces.

At a small refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, three young woman spoke about how they fled the Baba Amr district of Homs, amid renewed fighting there in recent weeks. Two of three say that their husbands are missing – presumed dead or jailed by the government. One, Samira, who didnt want to give her full name, says “I don’t know what happened to him, he went to the shops one day more than a year ago, but never came home.”

A short drive from the camp, the spectacular Roman ruins in Baalbeck are the backdrop to a tiny Maronite Catholic church. The Maronites are the biggest Christian group in Lebanon and under the country’s sectarian horse-trading political system, the country’s President is a Maronite, with the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi’ite.

Baalbeck is a Shia-majority town, and on the streets around some spectacular Roman ruins, peddlars jostle to sell Hezbollah tshirts and what they say are old Roman coins.

For Lebanese, the refugee influx – now equivalent to a between one-tenth and quarter of the country’s 4.1 million population, depending on whose estimate is used – brings back grim memories of Lebanon’s own civil war, which began after an influx of Palestinian refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom still stay in camps in Lebanon.

Maronite priest Elias Makoun Gharios says that though Christians are a minority in Baalbeck, they don’t have any problems when it comes to relations with neighbors.

He’s concerned, though, about the growing impact of the Syrian war. “There are some fanatical Sunni fighters in Syria, maybe not Syrians, but they could trouble us here,” he worries.

Syria’s government is allied with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia now dominant in Lebanon’s politics, and uses the word “terrorist” as a blanket description for all opposition groups in Syria.

In-fighting between opposition factions in Syria has prompted fears that those tensions could spill over into Lebanon, after clashes in opposition-held areas of Syria involving the Nusra Front, which formally announced an alliance with Al-Qaeda on April 10. The Front has a stern Islamist vision for a post-Bashar Syria, an outcome that might not sit well with many Syrians, long-used to secular government.

Hezbollah and its allies accuse jihadist groups such as the Nusra Front of not only playing a major part in the rebellion against Assad, but of infiltrating Lebanon. In turn, Sunnis in Lebanon accuse Hezbollah of fighting directly on the Assad side in Syria, sending men and weapons across the border to attack Syrian Sunnis.

Back in Tripoli, Mouin Merhebi, a Sunni MP based in Tripoli and member of the anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition, says that though there are valid concerns in Lebanon about what he terms “extremists” in Syria, this isn’t the biggest worry.

“If the war of Syria comes to Lebanon, it will be because of Hezbollah,” he says, adding “Hezbollah and Iran are controlling Lebanon now.”

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