Amid Lebanese Anti-Assad Protests, Syrians Find Shaky Refuge in Lebanon

While Lebanese launched demonstrations Friday condemning the Syrian regime’s violence, Hizbullah’s ties to Assad have left Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon in a dicey situation, Andrew Bossone reports.

02.10.12 4:30 PM ET

Protests erupted across Lebanon on Friday to condemn the Assad regime’s ongoing siege of the Syrian city of Homs, with gunmen for and against the regime exchanging fire in Tripoli, injuring three civilians and two Lebanese soldiers.

Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, has historic ties across the border and has been a place of refuge for Syrians fleeing the violence of the 11-month revolution against the Assad regime. Attacks have increased dramatically in the past few weeks in Homs, a short drive across the Lebanese border, and several dozen people have been killed every day there for more than a week, according to activists and press reports.

The Hizbullah-led Lebanese government has close ties to President Bashar al-Assad and has remained reticent about the Syrian revolution, leaving Syrians in Lebanon in a precarious situation, with little or no official protection from the Lebanese security forces.

Syrian activists dubbed the protests in Lebanon the “Friday of Russia Killing Our Children,” after Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-led U.N. Security Council resolution against the Syrian regime.

“We aren’t afraid of Russia, we aren’t afraid of China, we’re only afraid of God,” said Abu Mohammed, 24, a Syrian from Homs protesting in Tripoli.

Many Syrians seeking medical help have landed in hospitals in Tripoli that care for them in secret. According to a Syrian activist who requested anonymity, a clandestine network of Syrians has been caring for the injured and smuggling medicine across the border. They have to hide not only the injured from Lebanese authorities, but also the medicine, as it requires licenses for distribution.

The network has assisted about 800 refugee families in Tripoli, in addition to 900 elsewhere.

The plight of refugees in Lebanon has drawn the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has established a permanent staff in northern Lebanon to deal with the situation. The UNHCR says 6,375 Syrians have registered as displaced persons with the organization in partnership with the Lebanese High Commission for Refugees.

A spokeswoman for UNHCR, Dana Sleiman, told The Daily Beast that although the Lebanese government has coordinated with UNHCR and generally allows Syrians to cross into the country, many Syrians remain fearful of Syrian security crossing the border.

Displaced Syrians are “confined to the villages they are presently residing in, and if they venture further they could be arrested and detained for illegal entry/stay,” she said in an email.

“UNHCR is engaged in dialogue with the [Lebanese] government concerning the possibility of the government issuing circulation permits.”

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Many Syrians in Lebanon remain in hiding and avoid Lebanese authorities. Syria occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades, until 2005, and is believed to have agents inside the Lebanese security forces. Syrians also must avoid security forces loyal to the Shiite Hizbullah.

Unlike Beirut, the cosmopolitan and multisectarian capital, Tripoli is predominantly Sunni. The conservative Salafi group Hezb Tahrir, or Liberation Party, led the Friday protests. Many of the organizers’ slogans included denunciations of Iran and Hizbullah for their support of Assad and called for the establishment of a Sunni caliphate government.

Both Hizbullah and the Salafis have been accused of smuggling arms and even sending fighters to Syria, although the allegations have not been confirmed. Recent reports indicate that arms shipments have increased in the north, a traditional center for smuggling.

“We appreciate the support for civil society in Lebanon, but at the same time I can’t say I’m proud of the practices of sectarian groups on both sides, particularly Salafis and Hizbullah,” said the Syrian activist who is helping the injured and sending medicine. “My issue with Hizbullah has nothing to do with religion but with politics, and many of my Shiite friends in Lebanon remain supportive of the Syrian revolution.”