Maha Yahya, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Public fears raised by events in Arsal have generated an anti-Syrian social climate that does nothing to resolve Lebanon’s security issues. The beheading of three Lebanese soldiers by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in the last few weeks has sent shockwaves across the country. Coming in the aftermath of an intense conflict between the Lebanese army and militant Islamists in the border town of Arsal, it raised concerns that the Lebanese army was becoming ever more embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Public reaction is alternating between patriotic support for the army, quieter support for Hezbollah, and xenophobic reactions against Syrian refugees.
In response to the conflict in Arsal and all that followed, Syrian refugees across Lebanese territories have been subjected to blatant and unjustifiable attacks that have increased in tempo and scale amid official indifference. Most critically, this climate has extended across Lebanese territories to areas where Syrians were once welcome. For example, a recent message to Syrian refugees in the city of Baalbek warned them with kidnapping and battery if they did not leave. A number of Lebanese political leaders, including Walid Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, have condemned these attacks, but they are drowned out by a more dominant depiction of Syrian refugees as a security threat and unbearable burden to the country. Some have gone as far as to claim that “every gathering by Syrians is a sleeper cell.”
Attacks on Syrians have not been limited to random individuals or groups. In the last week, images have been circulating on social media in which army officers stand over scores of captured male Syrian refugees lying face-down on a sandy road, some adjacent to the burning tents that once housed them. Local reactions to these images have alternated between complete support for the army and condemnation for what looks to be random incarceration and mistreatment of refugees simply for being Syrian. Support for the army was most exemplified in a Facebook post by popular singer Tania Saleh, who told them, “My hand is in your boot.” This unleashed a storm of satirical criticism at her expense. There has also been criticism of the army’s actions against the refugees from scores of journalists and activists, who admonished the army for acting more like a militia than a state institution. For this, these activists were also attacked on social media for their “unpatriotic” sentiments at a moment of national crisis.
The actions of ISIS have raised existential fears for many Lebanese, particularly Christian communities who worry about their safety should the group establish a permanent foothold in the country. Some towns, including Batroun, have taken measures into their own hands by arranging for their own self-defense.
But this uptick in xenophobia in the name of fighting terrorism is placing thousands of Syrian refugees at risk and may push alienated youth towards radicalism. Already, an increase in radicalization among some youth in Lebanon is becoming apparent, with reports of pro-ISIS graffiti and ISIS flags flown in different parts of the country. Unless Lebanon dials back the dominant narrative that casts all Syrian refugees as potential enemies to the country, they may push some refugees into the arms of extremist groups. And given the stalled political climate, it is on the Lebanese to combat these stereotypes from the bottom up—so Lebanon can focus on eliminating the real threats to its security.