Syrians in Lebanon fearful after embassy attack

New wave of anti-Syrian refugee sentiment has swept through Lebanon in recent weeks

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Syrians in Lebanon remain fearful of leaving their homes in the wake of an attack on the US embassy on Wednesday by a Syrian gunman.

He opened fire on the US embassy, injuring a private embassy guard, and engaged the Lebanese Army in a shoot-out.

The gunman, who suffered serious injuries, was arrested. Lebanese media later reported that the gunman was registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) – prompting fears among Syrians that the incident would be used as a pretext to further a political campaign against Syrian presence in Lebanon.

“The fear is always there,” said Ahmad, a 34-year-old tailor from Idlib in north-western Syria. “Who knows – there might well be a big response now just like before.” He was referring to the killing in April of local Lebanese party official Pascal Sleiman, which was blamed on a Syrian carjacking ring.

Mr Sleiman’s death triggered a new campaign of anti-refugee and anti-Syrian sentiment and vigilantism that was further fuelled by politicians.

Authorities have since established a campaign of raids, evictions, arrests and deportations that have left many Syrians fearful of losing their homes.

Anti-Syrian sentiment, exacerbated by the presence of about 1.5 million refugees that came to Lebanon to escape a war in neighbouring Syria, has long lingered under Lebanon’s surface. It is further aggravated by Lebanon’s complicated history with Syria – including the latter’s 28-year occupation of Lebanon that began during its 1975-1990 civil war.

A representative from the Lebanese Forces (LF), the parliament’s largest party but with no position in the cabinet, asked what it would take for the authorities to "sort out" the issue of Syrian refugees.

The process of resettling Syrians to western countries is slow and arduous, as far-right anti-immigration sentiment rises, while their return to their homeland is ridden with danger due to the government's political repression and pervasive surveillance.

“It brings back to the surface the idea of illegal migrants in Lebanon and the need to sort it out,” the LF representative said of the embassy attack. “Especially now that Syria is ready to accommodate them safely.”

Lebanese politicians have repeatedly said many parts of Syria are safe now that much of the country is no longer engulfed in conflict – a claim numerous rights groups have disputed.

“Let’s say Pascal Sleiman is still alive or the attack on the embassy yesterday did not happen,” the LF representative said. “Is it something normal to live with having two million Syrians illegally in Lebanon?”

There is also resentment among many ordinary Lebanese, who are suffering under a prolonged economic and political crisis that has left them scrambling for jobs and resources, pitting them in direct competition with Syrians.

“I have no problem if they are working here legally but many of them are not,” said shopkeeper Hamoudi.

“And if you look at their living conditions, with many of them staying in small rooms with no space … this is no life to live. Lebanon cannot take the burden of so many people.”

Ahmad, the tailor from Idlib, said he feared the US embassy attack could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but “in the end it’s the continuation of the same campaign of deportation”.

“We’ve barely worked or even left the house for the last a month and a half,” he said, explaining that a network of flying checkpoints erected by Lebanese authorities has made Syrians afraid to commute to work out of concern for deportation. “We don’t dare to leave.”

A Lebanese security source told The National that the embassy gunman had a background of “extremist ideology” and indicated his possible affiliation to ISIS, while US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said he had been arrested wearing “ISIS insignia”.

“But they’re going to blame us, of course,” Ahmad said. “Everyone knows the routine by now – anything that goes wrong gets blamed on Syrians.”

Updated: June 06, 2024, 2:12 PM