Lebanon's tough options as backlash against Syrian refugees grows

A wave of suicide attacks in northeast Lebanon has prompted calls for action. But many worry the wrong approach toward the country's large refugee population could spur radicalization. 

Nicholas Blanford/Freelance writer
Troops from the Lebanese Army's Air Assault Regiment patrol the streets of Qaa in the northern Bekaa Valley two days after eight suicide bombers blew themselves up in the village, killing five people and wounding more than 30.

A deadly wave of attacks by Syrian suicide bombers and fears of further attacks has generated a backlash against the Syrian refugee population that has inundated tiny Lebanon over the past four years.

Analysts have long warned that if the more than 1 million Syrians here, almost all of them Sunnis, become radicalized, they could pose the gravest mid- to long-term threat to Lebanon’s already precarious stability.

Syrian refugees live in pitiful circumstances, with only 5 percent of teenagers attending school. Strict residency requirements have left around half the refugee population without legal status, according to human rights activists.

But the arrest of more than 100 refugees in the first 24 hours after Monday’s bomb attacks and calls for the Syrians to be either marshaled into a vast camp or removed from the country altogether place even greater pressure on the refugee population that could encourage the spread of militancy, analysts warn.

“After [the bombings], the Army arrests 100 and says they didn’t have proper residency. I’m assuming that means that none of them were actually related to the bombing.... So how is that a security priority today? Why waste your energy going after people that do not represent a security threat? It’s very short-sighted,” says Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

In the post-9/11 era, and particularly with the rise of the self-declared Islamic State and the lure it can pose to disaffected Muslims in the West, counter-radicalization policies and initiatives have become increasingly prominent. But the scale of the potential problem in Lebanon, where roughly 1 in 5 people is Syrian, dwarfs the government’s already stretched capabilities, which are complicated by conflicting political views on how to handle the refugee crisis. 

The Qaa attack

Five people died and 19 were wounded when four Syrians infiltrated Qaa in the early hours of June 27 and detonated their explosive belts after their presence was discovered. That evening, four more Syrian suicide bombers entered the village. One of them, with gelled hair and neatly trimmed beard, walked up to a group of young men armed with pistols sitting outside a church in the village center, according to eyewitnesses. He greeted them and then pulled the cord to detonate his vest, but the charge did not explode.

As the young men drew their pistols to shoot, the bomber stepped away, frantically attempting to detonate the explosive vest. It blew up when he was about 20 yards from the men, wounding several, but not causing any fatalities. A second suicide bomber blew himself up nearby, while the remaining two were shot and killed by soldiers, the bullets apparently detonating their explosive vests. Thirteen people were wounded in the second wave of bombings.

Qaa lies at the northeast corner of Lebanon, adjacent to rugged barren mountains that mark the border with Syria. Some 11,000 Syrian refugees live within the municipal boundaries, mainly in makeshift encampments in a flat agricultural area known as Masharei al-Qaa, north of the village.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the bombings, but the extremist Islamic State is widely suspected. Lebanese and foreign security sources are concerned that with the gradual break up of IS’s so-called “caliphate” spanning a swath of Iraq and Syria, Lebanese members of the group will return home to establish sleeper cells and carry out attacks. The media have carried numerous reports in the past two weeks warning of potential attacks against tourists sites, crowded places, and locations frequented by Westerners.

On Thursday, the Army said it had foiled two planned attacks by IS, one against a “large tourist facility,” and had arrested five members of the cell. Nohad Mashnouq, the Lebanese interior minister, said Thursday that seven militant networks had been uncovered in recent months. He added that seven of the eight bombers who struck Qaa had come from Raqqa in northern Syria, the IS “capital.”

“The suicide bombers in Qaa came from Syria to Lebanon specifically to carry out terrorist attacks, and they were not residing in Lebanon,” he said.

Send them away?

His comment was widely interpreted as seeking to deflect blame from the refugee population. But residents in Qaa believe that the bombers at least received some support from the refugees living in Masharei al-Qaa.

“We don’t believe they came from Syria. We think they were here, in Masharei al-Qaa,” says Deeb Wehbe, one of several elderly men sitting in the shade of a canvas awning outside the village’s main church. In a hall nearby, women dressed in black weeped over the five Lebanese flag-draped coffins containing the victims of the bombings.

“We have a big problem with the refugees. We want them all gone,” says Deeb Farha.

The elderly men said that the 200 Syrian refugees living inside Qaa itself, renting homes, had been given a 72-hour deadline to leave the village. 

“It is unacceptable from now on for us to put up with this illegal presence of refugees,” says Nicolas Matar, an official of the Qaa municipal council.  “We need to put them all in a place where they can be monitored.”

The government has refrained from building formal refugee camps out of concern that they may end up as permanent as the Palestinian refugee camps that have existed here since 1948. Instead, most refugees live in scattered small encampments where they are left to fend for themselves.

"We are living in fear. We don’t know what will happen to us,” says Amoun al-Ali, a mother of five children originally from Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Ms. Ali and her family are among some 12 refugees who have spent the past four years living in a tiny encampment in the Shiite-populated village of Labwe in the northern Bekaa Valley.

With each day a struggle to find work and food, medicines and clothing for families, it leaves little time for young men to mull their fate and potentially drift toward extremism. If they were put in camps and idled by lack of work and the provision of supplies by NGOs, that dynamic could change, some observers say.

Houry of Human Rights Watch says that the Lebanese government could help reduce the potential threat of radicalization by strengthening the capabilities of the refugee population and the host nation to help both shoulder the burden of their mutual crisis.  

One step, he says, is to mount a transparent criminal investigation of each attack so that the perpetrators and their associates are clearly identified, thereby reducing the confusion, rumors, and scare-mongering that often follow each incident.

Another is to soften the strict residency requirements for Syrian refugees that came into effect 18 months ago. Some 600,000 to 700,000 refugees are estimated to be living in Lebanon illegally. Dozens of Syrians are arrested on a near-daily basis for lacking residency. They are generally released after 24 hours with papers instructing them to leave the country. But few actually follow the instruction and there is little follow up by the state, which means the refugees are susceptible to being arrested again.

“The residency policy is failing,” says Houry. “It’s not like the numbers of refugees are going down. They are still here except that more than half of them now no longer have legal status. And they are hiding from the authorities even when they don’t represent any security risk. Not only is this bad for human rights; it’s not a smart security policy.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.