Ersal, Lebanon – To Kasem al-Zein, last Thursday was one of his worst days on the job.
Amid a Lebanese army raid on Sept. 25, the 50-year-old former field doctor with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who now runs a hospital in Arsal, recalled chaos inside local tent villages housing throngs of Syrian refugees. Tents were invaded and in some cases set ablaze; al-Zein said he treated several patients suffering from smoke inhalation and a young girl with third-degree burns on her leg. By the time troops left, hundreds of males, including children as young as 13, had been rounded up and taken away for questioning.
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“The situation was very bad,” al-Zein told Al Jazeera. “The refugees think the raids are unjust because they haven’t done anything wrong.”
According to the Lebanese army, the Arsal raids resulted in the arrest of 22 Syrian men suspected of involvement in attacks against the army – bringing the total number of Syrians detained in similar raids over the past two weeks to an estimated 450. Dozens more have reportedly been freed after interrogation.
Arsal is the first stop for many civilians fleeing Syria’s three-year-old civil war, but its refugee camps have been badly damaged by the ongoing fighting, prompting refugees to seek shelter in the town itself. Last month, Arsal was the scene of a deadly spillover of violence, as clashes killed dozens and rebels captured a group of Lebanese soldiers.
The war in Syria has divided Lebanese citizens. Security is a top issue, with skirmishes along the border, and Lebanese residents have become increasingly anxious amid media warnings and rhetoric that paints Syrian refugees as a risk to be contained. Syrian detainees are often accused of either being members of groups such as the al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda wing fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or supporters of those groups.
, only that they suspected we were cooperating with ISIS and Nusra”]
Public anger towards the Lebanese army’s actions in Arsal is concentrated mostly in Sunni areas, especially in northern Lebanon. A demonstration was held in Tripoli last week to protest the army measures.
“Resentment here [is] starting to grow,” said Khaldoun Taleb, the mayor of Fnaydeq, a Sunni town in northern Lebanon – although in general, he noted, residents support the army. “About 3,000 of our sons are enlisted.”
Taleb cited a perceived double-standard with respect to Hezbollah, which sent its men to fight alongside Assad’s troops, and Sunni fighters who support the Syrian opposition. Many in Fnaydeq who went to fight with the FSA were questioned by Lebanese army intelligence about their involvement in Syria, he said, while Hezbollah fighters freely cross official checkpoints to take part in battles alongside Assad’s regime with no questions asked.
“We are starting to question why we are being treated differently,” Taleb said.
Among those detained and later released in Thursday’s raids was Syrian refugee Sleiman Khaled, who claimed he was blindfolded, beaten and interrogated by soldiers at an unknown location.
“They took all the men randomly,” he said. “When we got there they asked for our IDs, and those who had them on hand were separated from those who didn’t. They didn’t tell us why [we were being detained], only that they suspected we were cooperating with ISIS and Nusra.”
Another Syrian refugee residing in the Asaleya camp in Arsal, who requested anonymity, said soldiers had put a bag over his head when they detained him.
“I have nothing to do with ISIL, but that’s what the army was accusing us of,” he said. “I can accept beatings, but they are doing more than that – they are hurting our dignity.”
Meanwhile, security sources said Lebanese soldiers clashed briefly with fighters overnight on Friday after raids on suspected hideouts across border areas, including Wadi Hmeid, on the outskirts of Arsal. One security source, who requested anonymity, confirmed that Syrian warplanes had also carried out air raids on militant hideouts in Wadi Rahwe and Wadi Zamran on Friday morning.
In an effort to mitigate rising tensions, Lebanese Army Chief General Jean Kahwagi said the military’s actions in Arsal were meant to protect refugees. “Arsal is not under siege,” he told reporters after meeting with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian.
According to Aram Nerguizian, a Lebanese Army expert and analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the army crackdown in Arsal is a necessary measure to root out fighters.
“There had been an attack from within the refugee population [in Arsal],” he said. “You have something like 38 refugee camps and the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] needs to increase its intelligence… on who’s operating [in the camps].”
The army is in the midst of an operation using both air power and intelligence to identify any refugees who may be collaborating with armed groups, he said.
“If you have a force within your own territory which could act out, the LAF has to take precautions. The LAF is not out to win a popularity contest; they want to do this as delicately as they can,” Nerguizian said. “It’s an ugly thing and there’s no elegant way to do it. You run the risk of alienating people.”
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