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Saturday, January 21, 2017
- Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal crackdown on citizens calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have encountered a sinister reception in neighbouring Lebanon.
Rather than feeling safe outside of the many arms of the repressive Syrian state, political refugees and activists seeking sanctuary are being continuously hounded for their activities.
Since March, the Baath Party’s grip on Syria has been shaken by pro-democracy protests. Assad’s military apparatus has responded with brute force, sending tanks and troops into the streets to battle non-violent demonstrators in clashes that have so far resulted in well over 3,000 deaths.
However, loyalty to the Assad regime is not limited to Syria; it also runs deep in Lebanon, which is currently governed by a coalition of parties allied with Damascus, namely Hezbollah and the Lebanese Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP).
Syrian authorities planted an active military and intelligence service on Lebanese soil during its occupation of that country from 1976-2005. Today, the proxy apparatus of the Syrian regime has come back to life with renewed vigour.
Local human rights organisations in Beirut say that attacks against Syrian activists are on the rise while over a dozen opposition members have disappeared in recent months.
“I was attacked by men holding sticks and guns as I left the demonstration with others,” Beeri told IPS.
“The pressure we face as activists here in Lebanon is constant. I have been threatened and insulted. In an effort to divert attention, I have changed my cell phone number several times, but ‘they’ always seem to track me down,” he said, referring to Syria’s proxies in Lebanon.
Beeri is not alone in his daily struggle.
Saleh Damerji, a Syrian journalist working for a Kurdish TV station, has been living in Lebanon for over 15 years. Two years ago, he joined the Syrian opposition and has since been a target of sustained threats and intimidation.
“Pro-Assad supporters in Lebanon are waging a psychological war against the opposition. Our families here and in Syria have been threatened numerous times and have been tracked down,” he told IPS.
Damerji’s car was vandalised last week after he appeared on a local TV station to discuss the events unfolding in Syria.
“I have been called by strangers pretending they were post office employees who had a package to deliver. A quick investigation at the local post office revealed the claim to be false,” Damerji said.
Beeri also complained that someone claiming to be a ‘member’ of the United Nations Refugee Agency has repeatedly requested his address.
In some cases, activists and opposition members face such severe harassment they are forced to move from house to house to escape the scrutiny of Syria’s local agents in Lebanon.
Omar Idilbi, a member of the local Syrian Coordination Committee, told IPS last month that he had changed his address several times. He also refused to meet for an interview in the Hamra area – a popular Beirut neighborhood that is a bastion of the SSNP as well as the home base of the Syrian embassy – because it was “too risky”. IPS has since been unable to track him down.
According to Nabil Halabi, a lawyer with the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Idilbi was sued by a Lebanese national for “damaging Lebanese-Syrian relations”, a legal procedure that was aimed at forcing him to disclose his place of residence.
Threats and pressure are not the only challenges Syrian activists in Lebanon are forced to overcome.
Last February, just as anti-government activity was on the rise, six members of the Jasem family were arrested by Lebanese intelligence agents for disseminating pro-democracy leaflets calling for regime change in Syria.
Shortly after their release on Feb. 25, three of the brothers disappeared.
In May, 86-year-old Shibli al-Ayssami – a founder of the Syrian Baath Party living in exile in the United States – was kidnapped while on a visit to Lebanon.
“Besides these highly publicised cases, we have (evidence that) 12 members of the Syrian opposition were kidnapped in Lebanon before being transferred to Syria. They were moved out of the country in Syrian embassy cars boasting diplomatic licence plates and were not searched at the borders,” Halabi told IPS.
Last week Lebanese Internal Security Forces chief Gen. Ashraf Rifi informed Lebanese members of parliament that allies and personnel of the Syrian embassy in Beirut were responsible for the abductions of the Jasem brothers and Ayssami, though Syrian ambassador Abdul Karim Ali denied that allegation.
Halabi referred to scores more cases, of mysterious disappearances of protestors and activists, which have been reported but have neither been investigated nor recorded.
The lawyer also denounced the Lebanese authorities’ lax approach to the problem as well as the collusion of some of its officers.
“During the last anti-government protests last Sunday, I was filming a man who was pointed out to me as one of the people involved in several attacks on demonstrators,” Halabi said.
“Suddenly, a Lebanese army officer intervened and forced me to delete some of my footage. When I invoked my immunity as a lawyer and threatened to lodge a complaint against him, he ran away,” Halabi added.
In spite of the increasingly dangerous environment, members of the Syrian opposition say they will not relent in their efforts to topple Assad’s regime.
“It is, however, sad that the legal system in Lebanon fails to protect us. The only advice given to us by officials and authorities alike is to lie low,” Damerji said.