Deporting Syrians: A ploy to propel Lebanon’s US-backed army chief into power?

Radwan Mortada, The Cradle, April 28, 2023 —

Did Lebanon’s US-backed army commander exploit the Syrian refugee crisis and incite clashes with them to catapult himself into the highly-contested Lebanese presidency? The US silence on Joseph Aoun’s illegal deportations last week is deafening.

Since the 2011 outbreak of war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians have fled to Lebanon, worsening an already catastrophic economic crisis in the small Levantine state. The situation has led to rising tensions and xenophobia toward Syrians, whose presence is seen as responsible for exacerbating the crisis.

Currently, around 4 million people, including 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 2.2 million vulnerable Lebanese, are in need of humanitarian aid. As such, there have been growing calls to repatriate the displaced, particularly among Lebanese Christians who fear a demographic change that could further reduce their shrinking population in a country they view as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

Last October, the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security announced that the most updated number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon had reached 2,080,000, which constitutes about 30 percent of the Lebanese population.

In March 2023, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janiz Lenarcic stated that “Lebanon is facing multiple crises which are putting more and more people at risk. In addition, the country hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.”

On April 26, Lebanese Minister of Defense Maurice Sleem – like other officials in recent years – accused the international community of pressuring Lebanon to keep displaced Syrians in the country and integrating them into Lebanese society by paying them money in hard currency.

Challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis

The following day, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar quoted Germany’s Ambassador to Beirut Andreas Kindl as saying, in a private conversation, that Christians in Lebanon must “accommodate” the fact that they have become a minority.

This politically combustive issue has been compounded by the UN’s refusal to provide Lebanon with accurate data on the number of registered Syrian refugees in the country, estimated by the UN today to be around 830,000.

Further complicating matters is a long-term US and western pressure campaign on the Lebanese government to prevent the establishment of contacts with the government of President Bashar al-Assad that could facilitate the return of displaced Syrians to safe areas back home.

Those western pressures are also in high gear inside Syria, where a US/EU-led blockade and sanctions on the country have crippled the state’s economy. Furthermore, US military occupation of the northeast – rich in Syrian oil and agricultural wealth, now siphoned off by US allies – makes it difficult for the Syrian government to provide reconstruction support for returnees or help absorb them into the local labor force without international aid programs.

The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is further compounded by the fact that western countries, NGOs, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) link their refugee aid to displaced Syrians remaining in Lebanon. They refuse to fund any support programs for them in their home country, which the Lebanese increasingly believe encourages refugees to stay put.

Failed repatriation attempts

In late 2022, the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security attempted to organize voluntary return trips for the displaced to Syria after obtaining guarantees for their safety from the government in Damascus.

However, these efforts failed due to western pressures, unsubstantiated warnings from international organizations that refugees would be persecuted upon return to Syria, and the unwillingness of the displaced themselves to lose foreign food aid and financial assistance.

In 2019, the Supreme Council of Defense in Lebanon – the body responsible for implementing the state’s national defense strategy – issued instructions to the security services to deport Syrians who enter Lebanon through illegal border crossings.

That year marked the start of Lebanon’s financial crisis, and the weakened government succumbed to western pressure, refraining from making any significant efforts to repatriate the displaced or communicate with Damascus to coordinate their return.

The irony is that large numbers of these ‘refugees’ visit Syria periodically without being subjected to any harassment. During the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of last Ramadan, 37,000 Syrians visited their country and returned to Lebanon, which according to Lebanese Labor Minister Mustafa Bayram, de facto deprives them of their refugee status.

The Lebanese army illegally deports Syrians

Matters suddenly escalated on 21 April, with reports that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) raided the homes of Syrian families in various locations across the country and forcibly deported dozens of Syrians who had entered Lebanon irregularly or whose residency permits had expired.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the heavy-handed incident, which violated the principle of non-refoulment of refugees, involved the forced repatriation of no fewer than 168 Syrian refugees since the start of April 2023:

“The overwhelming majority of forced returnees were brutally beaten and insulted during the raids on their houses and places of residence. They were denied the opportunity to take any of their personal belongings with them.”

These sudden deportations occurred amid an escalation of anti-Syrian sentiment, clashes between Lebanese and displaced persons in some areas, and an anti-refugee social media campaign linking them to increased local crime rates.

Ominously, the LAF did not coordinate the deportations with either the Lebanese or Syrian governments or with the Lebanese General Security, whose jurisdiction refugees fall under. The LAF has sought to justify its actions by claiming that overflowing Lebanese security service detention centers were no longer able to accommodate Syrian detainees.

A Lebanese military source reveals to The Cradle that the LAF began implementing its decision to deport Syrians to the border about two weeks ago, that the decision to do so was made by LAF Commander General Joseph Aoun himself, and that Lebanese army intelligence handed over the refugees to the Land Border Regiment which transported them across the border.

General Joseph Aoun: Presidential motives?

In Lebanon, the timing of the army’s decision to deport Syrian refugees has drawn attention to the possible political motives behind this move. LAF Commander Joseph Aoun is a close friend of Washington’s – having last year received $100 million from the US directly (bypassing the Lebanese government) – and is viewed as a potential candidate to fill the vacant seat of the hotly-contested Lebanese presidency, whose incumbent’s term ended in October.

Yet the army’s decision to deport refugees openly contravenes US policy to keep the displaced in Lebanon.

Aoun’s ‘violation’ of the US policy against repatriation of Syrian refugees – without fear of an American or western reaction to his “forced deportations” – adds a further layer of confusion about the army’s move. This ambiguity increased after the re-circulation of a video by Syrian dissident Kamal al-Labwani – who enjoys close ties to the US and Israel – in which he insults the Lebanese army and calls on Syrian refugees to take up arms.

At the same time, dozens of videos showing Lebanese violence against Syrians and news about Syrian crimes in Lebanon began spreading like wildfire across social media platforms – many of these were later discovered to be either fabricated or very old.

The deportation decision also coincides with the sudden rising domestic and international consensus around a presidency led by former MP Suleiman Franjieh, who is supported by Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah.

Washington’s man in Beirut

A senior Lebanese intelligence source tells The Cradle that there is concern that the deportation was a stunt to rally the Lebanese – at the eleventh hour – around the candidacy of Joseph Aoun, who will be portrayed as a “savior” for ejecting refugees.

Just as the Turkish opposition this week chased a “bump” in polls by vowing to repatriate Syrian refugees in the run-up to Turkiye’s critical May elections, the intel source fears that Lebanon’s army commander is employing similar tactics – despite the dangers these actions pose to Lebanon’s fragile political and security space.

Fears of a “presidential conspiracy” are also spreading on social media, including a tweet on 26 April from the head of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil, the most prominent national opponent of Joseph Aoun’s accession to the presidency:

“The random Syrian exodus was a conspiracy that we faced alone, and expelling them by violence is a conspiracy that we will face. We support a safe and dignified return and the implementation of international and Lebanese law by the return of every illegally displaced person and the prevention of any resettlement.”

Bassil warned that “the regional opportunity is open for the return of the displaced, and we will not allow the conspirators and those who finally woke up to waste it through incitement and inhumanity.”

Confidence in this scenario has also risen because of reports from US Embassy in Beirut contacts that the LAF commander remains Washington’s first choice for the presidency.

Did Washington merely choose to ignore the LAF’s deportation of refugees, after having invested many years and millions of dollars trying to prevent the return of Syrians back home?  Or did the Americans collude with the Lebanese army commander to swing him into the presidential seat at an opportune moment?

Today, the LAF and state security forces announced the capture of several “cells” of armed Syrians in Lebanon. After 12 years of the Syrian war, and at least five years after the conflict’s military phase declined, did Syrians in Lebanon suddenly decide to pick up weapons against this state? Or is this further US-style “momentum” to build a narrative that launches Joseph Aoun into Lebanon’s most coveted political position?

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