Lebanon and Free Syrian Army: A State of Denial

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The hospital has its own security detail. There are two daily shifts, with four armed guards stationed at the hospital during each shift. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Ziad al-Zaatari

Published Friday, April 6, 2012

Confusion among Lebanese politicians on how to deal with developments in Syria can also be seen in the handling of the issue of Syrian refugees, particularly the injured among them.

In Tripoli’s Abu Samra district, there is a hospital occupied entirely by wounded Syrians – mostly fighters injured in battles with the Syrian army – who were brought into Lebanon illegally.

They are safe and secure in Lebanon. The hospital has its own security detail. There are two daily shifts, with four armed guards stationed at the hospital during each shift. New patients are admitted daily, usually about four or five, but sometimes as many as 25. This is not the only hospital in Tripoli that treats wounded Syrians, but it is the only one under the “control” of the Free Syrian Army.

The rounds are done as normal at the hospital in Abu Samra. Abu-Ahmad, a commander in the FSA’s Farouq Brigade, speaks of the formation of “death squads to exact revenge against the enemies of the faith.” He speaks of executions carried out by him and some of his comrades, in which they slit the throats of their victims. His tales resemble those recently recounted in Der Spiegel. Coolly, Abu-Ahmad details a number of such incidents. Asked what happens to the other side’s women and children, he says that the slayings only target “the men who attack us.”

In one room, there is an injured man with an FSA flag wrapped around his head. He refuses to talk to the press. Two young men sitting next to him return our greeting, but also decline to speak to us.

In the next room lie two bearded men, one with wounds in his stomach and leg. The other has an injured eye.

The two men are known to all present as Abu Ali and Abu Ahmad. They are commanders in the FSA. The former heads its operations in the al-Qasir border district. The latter’s brother, Abu Omar Dandashi, was also in the FSA and was killed in clashes in Tal Kalakh.

The pair say they were injured in a skirmish the previous evening in the border area and were brought into Lebanon for treatment. They were accompanied by three armed men, and reached Tripoli at about midnight. Abu Ali had to have an operation to remove shrapnel from his gut. He wanted to return to Syria early the next morning but the doctor ordered him to take an extra day’s rest.

Our interview takes place the day after the operation.

Abu Ali describes how he was injured, when he and a group of eight others fighters launched an attack on a Syrian army post.

Abu Ali says he used to be a major in the Syrian intelligence services, but defected to work for the FSA. His appearance and mannerisms indicate that he is religiously devout. When asked if he holds fundamentalist views, and Abu Ali replies: “I wasn’t like that. But I have become now.” He explains that this is because “the international community abandoned us, except for our brothers in faith.”

When asked about the threat of sectarian warfare in Syria and he says such a conflict is already underway. He firmly blames three parties for it: “The Assad regime, the Shia Hezbollah, and Iran.”

“The expulsion of members of a certain sect from Syrian villages has begun,” he says. He recounts a raid on one village in which about 100 members of the sect were killed in one night. He say this was in retaliation for the slaying of “20 of our young men” in a neighboring village.

Abu Ali does not want to hear about coexistence. “That has become the past,“ he says. “We are now in a war. They kill our brothers, rape our women, and slaughter our children. It’s an eye for an eye, and it is the one who started who is at fault.”

He pauses, then adds: “But the teachings of our religion prevent us from raping their women: the sentence is death, by the knife or bullets.”

These two men are a sample of the Syrians being cared for in Lebanese hospitals or at relief centers belonging to the Lebanese government. These include many civilian men, women, and children who fled from the fighting in their country. They certainly include anti-regime fighters too, who also deserve to be treated. But they also include people who boast of committing cold-blooded crimes. Nobody in Lebanon holds the latter to account for their actions. Yet some of them have threatened that after they destroy the regime in Syria, they will turn their attention to some of the Lebanese.

Lebanese politicians have been divided along familiar lines about how to handle the situation.

A number of Cabinet ministers angrily opposed a request by Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour for an allocation of Lebanese Lira (LL) 100 million (US$67,000) to staff centers providing care to displaced Syrians, due to the inability of the Higher Relief Council (HRC) to provide them with necessary facilities.

Culture Minister Gabi Layoun was a particularly fierce critic, remarking that Lebanon should not “provide assistance to someone who boasts that he is a professional slaughterer.” Layoun’s position is that Lebanon should not provide any sanctuary for Syrian rebel fighters, or even allow them to receive food or other supplies. He argues that to do otherwise amounts to “indirectly taking part in the fighting” in Syria.

While conceding that no wounded or injured person should be denied treatment in Lebanon, Layoun said the security forces should do more to control the border and prevent illegal crossings, or else “a door will be opened which the Lebanese government will never be able to close.” Moreover, he wondered: “Not all of Syria is turbulent. Why don’t they move to peaceful villages in their own country?”

Abu Faour, for his part, affirmed that the vast majority of displaced Syrians in Lebanon are civilians and only a relatively small proportion are men. He said it was impossible to exclude rebel fighters. “When a refugee presents himself as a civilian, how can I tell if he has taken part in battles?”

He added that the vetting of incoming refugees was not within his ministry’s capabilities, and suggested that the issue be dealt with as a humanitarian issue and be kept out of the political fray.

Supervision of relief provided to Syrian refugees was discussed at a meeting at the Grand Serail Wednesday chaired by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and attended by Abu Faour and the HRC’s Secretary-General Ibrahim Bashir.

Bashir told Al-Akhbar afterward that an investigation would be conducted into whether Syrian rebel fighters had taken advantage of Lebanese government aid. But he noted that no such complaints had been received from the Syrian government.

As far as the Lebanese security forces are concerned, a policy decision has been made not to exclude any injured person from the country. Such people are not questioned about the circumstances surrounding their injury. Security sources concede that the authorities “cannot distinguish between an injured civilian and a wounded fighter, nor an ordinary fighter and a butcher.”

Only people wanted by the Lebanese judiciary, or caught taking arms across the border, are detained. The others are left to their business

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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