During a misty summer dawn, on Friday 30 June 2017, Lebanese Army Forces (LAF) troops—reinforced with several tanks—stormed two Syrian refugee camps located on the outskirts of Arsal, in northeast Lebanon. The first, al-Nour Camp, is located in Jafar. The second, Qara, is located in Wadi al-Hosn. That dawn, LAF soldiers took their positions surrounding each of the camps and waited for the zero hour. Once the time came, around six o’clock in the morning, the troops began moving into the camps. As the soldiers combed through the tents that made up the refugee camps, they came under attack from unidentified armed men. According to reports, the armed men who shot at the LAF soldiers were affiliated with either Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State—both sets of whom infiltrated the camps. Seven LAF soldiers were wounded and another was killed during these military raids.
During the clashes between the army and gunmen, the troops continued to comb the tents. In some instances, they tossed hand grenades into tents—resulting in severe human casualties and material damage. By the end, the LAF had demolished approximately thirty housing units in the camp, while damaging dozens of other housing units and killing nineteen people. According to local sources, “it was the army that launched an attack using heavy weapons that caused one wall to fall on a girl, killing her, and another that killed a handicapped man—whose corpse was confiscated and handed back for burial days later.” After the battle was over the army arrested 356 Syrian men. Several estimates put the number of people injured during the raid at over three hundred. According to both Lebanese and Syrian sources on the ground in Arsal, there were no suicide bombers during the raid.
Yet the above details were not necessarily those announced by the LAF in its communications with the public in general and the media in particular. According to Reuters, the LAF claimed “five suicide bombers attacked Lebanese soldiers as they raided two Syrian refugee camps in Arsal at the border with Syria.” The news agency went on to report that the LAF “said seven soldiers were wounded and a girl was killed after one of the suicide bombers blew himself up in the midst of a family of refugees. It did not elaborate.” To Syrians, and some Lebanese, this particular set of raids was considered a most brutal military operation against the most destitute Syrian refugees in Lebanon. More importantly, the events ushered the beginning of a new manufactured discourse about the LAF, Syrian refugees, and alleged terrorist threats.
Following the raids, images circulated on social media showing hundreds of Syrian men handcuffed. Most were topless, tagged with spray paint on the backs of their naked bodies. Many of these Syrian bodies show signs of recent severe beatings. Some of the residents of the two camps managed to escape to other neighboring camps. Many others were detained by the LAF. As the day came to an end, a hashtag in support of the LAF began trending across social media: #Purge_the_hills of_Irsal.
In the days that followed the raids, the living conditions Syrians in their ransacked camps deteriorated to a point beyond the capacity of local relief organizations to address. Remarkably, the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR)—which is the international body tasked with overseeing assistance to Syrian refugees and which has facilitated the establishment of several camps around Arsal—was absent and provided no protection to refugees during this disaster. In the weeks that followed the raids, thousands of Syrian refugees in Arsal returned to Syria as a function of the deteriorating conditions. It merits considering the fact that the situation deteriorated so much in Arsal that these refugees preferred to return to what they had originally fled from in Syria. Those Syrian refugees that remained in Arsal, continue to be terrified by random arrests. Many of them spend their nights in hiding on side roads and in between graves of the village’s main cemetery.
Framing the Narrative
As the dust settled on that day of the raids, there appeared to be two very different yet complimentary operations at play. The first was a military operation to “cleanse” the camps from the alleged presence and threat of dangerous militants. The second was public relations campaign to establish hegemony over how the raids were represented, which include celebrating the idea and concept of “cleansing.” Despite initial confusion by residents of the camps and those that followed the conflicting news that emerged, the end of the day featured a specific set of facts and framing of the facts that dominated the public sphere. There were now two narratives of what transpired: one that was fed to and disseminated by Lebanese media outlets; and another that was only whispered among those left alive in Arsal.
The production of the official narrative of what transpired in Arsal was very clearly intended to compliment the military operation from the start. The Lebanese minister of defense was quoted as saying the “incident showed the importance of tackling the refugee crisis – Lebanon is hosting over 1 million refugees – and vindicated a policy of ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against militant sleeper cells.” The crucial question that remains unanswered is how was brutalizing the bodies of Syrian refugees supposed to solve the refugee crisis?
In the Beqaa Valley, three refugee camps were burned down in the day immediately following the raids in Arsal. The fires killed at least three people and left hundreds homeless (or tentless) with severe burn injuries. There were conflicting reasons for the alleged arsons that began to spread. The inhabitants of the camps insisted that there were unknown assailants who set fire to the camps. They also claim that the nearby local police did not take their pleas seriously when reporting the men or the fires. Alternatively, the mainstream media reported that the reasons for the arson remained unknown. Some hinted that the cause of fires was high summer temperatures. Furthermore, the army raided refugee encampments in different areas of Beqaa, detaining many Syrians for entering Lebanon illegally or not having residency permits.
Destroying the Evidence
It was not enough for officials to frame the narrative and feed it to local and international media outlets. They went so far as to destroy evidence which contradicted their narrative. Diala Shehadeh is a lawyer representing families of the Syrian men who the LAF arrested in Arsal and later died in custody. She gave a written account on her Facebook page of how the attempt to establish credible autopsy reports of the men’s bodies undermined. She accused military intelligence of seizing the samples she was transporting for independent autopsies, and then sending those samples to the governmental hospital. Shehadeh’s Facebook account included a video of this encounter.
As her account began to spread on social media, the Beirut Bar Association issued a directive preventing Shehadeh from appearing in the media pending a decision by Antonio Hashim, the head of the Beirut Bar Association. Shehadeh’s potential testimony was an inconvenient truth that had to be censored before it could have undermined the official framing of events. On 4 July 2017, the military issued a statement stating the cause of death for the four detained Syrian men. It “said that four detainees who ‘suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition’ died before being interrogated. It identified them as Mustafa Abd el Karim Absse, 57; Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, 43; Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, 32; and Othman Merhi el-Mleis. The army did not specify where it had detained them.”
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “On July 4, 2017, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying four Syrians died in its custody following mass raids in Arsal, a restricted access area in northeast Lebanon where many Syrian refugees live. On July 14, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a fifth Syrian detainee had also died in custody.” HRW went further to state that on “July 15, the army released a statement saying that it detained 356 people following these raids. It referred 56 for prosecution and 257 to the General Security agency for lack of residency. A humanitarian organization official told Human Rights Watch that children were among those detained.” HRW concluded that “any statement that the deaths of these individuals was due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.”
Stimulating a Nationalist Mania
As time passed and more information from Arsal emerged, it became clear that the official framing of the Arsal raids and their aftermath was meant to justify the military operation while at the same time delegitimize efforts at solidarity with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As the propaganda became ubiquitous, an ultra nationalist sentiment turned Syrians in Lebanon to an enemy within. They were rapidly dehumanized.
In response, the Socialist Forum called for a sit-in in solidarity with Syrian refugees to take place in downtown Beirut on Tuesday 18 July. The organization applied for and received official clearance from the Municipality of Beirut for the sit-in. This initiative challenged the dominant discourse and threatened to obstruct the systematic campaign to rally public opinion around the LAF. In order to undermine the initiative, apologists for the raids took to social media and created or shared a Facebook page titled the “Syrian People’s Union in Lebanon.” This page hijacked Socialist Forum’s call for a solidarity sit-in and sought to incite (or act like it was inciting) the public against the army. Yet several people noticed the use of Lebanese dialect in these posts, which led many to wonder which intelligence branch was operating the page. It was then that the Socialist Forum’s permit for the sit-in was leaked from inside the municipality, which then threatened the safety of organization’s members whose names were on the permit. In an atmosphere of extreme fear and intimidation, the Socialist Forum decided to canceled the sit-in.
Surrounding these developments was intensity of rumor production and circulation, primarily through social media (Facebook and WhatsApp in particular). What was effectively fake news regarding the intended sit-in by Socialist Forum was mobilized into a heightened sense of Lebanese nationalism. By the climax of the circulation of these rumors, the sit-in was framed as a call by Syrians to publicly insult the LAF. What followed was a literal festival of publically bashing Syrians. This in turn further stimulated the nationalist sentiment as violent images and videos went viral on social media. Several videos showed euphoric mobs of Lebanese men beating up Syrian boys and men.
In one video, a group of five Lebanese men grabbed a young Syrian man by the arm and led him around. One sees a bewildered victim being slapped around by a man who is also filming the act. The cameraman then invites his friends to partake in the beating of the trapped Syrian man as they shout, “Where are your papers?” A slap on the Syrian man’s head is followed by his timid replies of “my papers are at home, master. By god I didn’t do any thing, master.” The fact that this man had no papers on him was reason enough for this Lebanese mob to attack him, kicking and beating him, while shouting at him, “What are you doing out on the street at night? Fuck your sister . . . Do you support ISIS you fucking pimp? Fuck you and fuck ISIS. Are you going to protest tomorrow you pimp?” And another slap. At this point in the video, the Syrian man starts attempting to use his free arm to block the punches from different directions. The video ends with men shouting at their captive, summing up the essence of the nationalist hysteria that swept the country: “Say God and the Lebanese Army! Say fuck ISIS! Say fuck the most important person in Syria!” The insistence on the evocation of the Lebanese army’s superior status by these Lebanese men portrayed the transcendence of the army into a divine savior and sacred cow in the many of the public’s imagination.
This was not the first time Lebanese men mob Syrian men in Lebanon. Bursts of violence against Syrian men can be traced back to 2005, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon. This was also the year that ushered in the wave of political polarization and attendant socioeconomic breakdown in Lebanon which has now reached a critical stages. Yet the Syrians are certainly not the first group to experience the lash of intentionally mobilized Lebanese hyper nationalism. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have had their share of violence since 1948. It is a kind of violence that is literally pumped into the psyche of resentful Lebanese citizens, diverting their anger toward the other, the “stranger.”
The Intimacy of Nationalist Frenzy
On the morning of Monday 17July, there was Lebanese wartime music playing on the street in our neighborhood. The unusual calm that overtook a weekday morning in Ras Beirut felt like the same kind of quiet the city exhibits in times of war. On the street below the apartment, there was a neighbor’s car blasting the music. The sky blue Kia had one of its front doors wide open. Around it stood men from the neighborhood who had flocked to the music. There they were: the barber, the butcher, and the taxi driver, along with three other men sipping coffee and blowing smoke in silence and anticipation. All six men had their heads craned in one direction, waiting to catch every soundbite of breaking news about the topic that the country was gripped by. The scene did not bode well. I quickly had a flash back to previous periods of war in Lebanon, when the intensity of events overtook the daily routines and their chaotic noise. War—and there was talk of war—certainly unites. However, that particular type of Beirut moment corresponds to particular wars: when Israel attacks Lebanon; or at times when the Lebanese army attacks non-Lebanese residents of the country. People had literally taken the bait and began feeling like and thinking of the country was being at war.
It is worth noting that the Monday I am describing was that which followed the cancellation of the Socialist Forum sit-in, which was originally planned for Tuesday of that same week. It was during the weekend before these two days that we can identify the consolidation of an official narrative that succeeded in diverting peoples’ frustrations and directing it toward the “stranger” within. Then, the minister of interior announced a total ban on demonstrations throughout the country. He asserted that he has given instructions to reject all protest permit requests in order to preserve security and peace. It is worth noting that was all happening at the same time the other protests were planned against the government’s planned increases to various taxes and fees.
On Friday 21 July, I was chatting with the manager of a construction site in one affluent Ras Beirut neighborhood. Being much older than the twelve builders on the site, and the one who had been in Lebanon the longest, Abu Ahmad makes sure each worker is doing his assigned job from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. As we spoke, Beirut’s sun was hotter than usual. With Friday prayers about to begin, the street had suddenly quieted down. From a distance, I could hear the imam of the nearby mosque. It was then that I realized Abu Ahmad and his team were still working on the construction site even though it was their habit to take their lunch break after coming back from Friday prayers at the mosque. I asked Abu Ahmad why he was not at the mosque for Friday prayers. He looked at me with suspicious eyes, then wiped the sweat from his forehead with the red towel on his shoulder. He went on cleaning his whole face with the towel as if trying to hide his sense of guilt for not attending Friday prayers at the mosque. “Look my brother, we don’t need the headache. May God forgive us for abandoning our duty.” I asked what he meant by not needing any headache, and since when was it a problem to go to the mosque on Friday? My question was followed by a good ten seconds of silence as Abu Ahmad started to get fidgety, moving his towel from one shoulder to another. As I stood there waiting, he said, “Can’t you see what is going on? Syrians have to be careful these days not to arouse any suspicion. Any word we say or any place we attend has to be one of the utmost necessity. It is better that we focus on making our living here.” Abu Ahmad’s sunburned wrinkled face became twitchy. He was visibly uncomfortable as he went on saying, “Look, my brother, it maybe the signs of the end of times and God only knows, a pious Syrian these days could easily be mistaken for an extremist.” Abu Ahmad walked away looking around as if to see if anyone else was listening to our conversation. As he walked away, he said, “May god keep the watching eyes away from us.” This was another indication of how fear-stricken Syrians had become in context of their intensified dehumanization following the Arsal raid.
Structural Scapegoating or Fundamental Racism?
To simply attribute what has transpired as a function of Lebanese citizens being “naturally racist,” as some activists do, is to negate the ongoing systematic campaign to produce a literally permissible body for the public to vent their outrage on. Categorizing all outbursts of violence against Syrians as a function of permanent racism is an over-simplification that overlooks the workings of this systemic campaign. Beyond being morally irreprehensible, the demonization and targeting of Syrians has effectively diverted many Lebanese citizen’s frustration at their own rulers, channeling it toward scapegoating Syrian refugees. This violence against Syrians did not simply surface, it was mobilized, encouraged, and sanctioned through the speeches of Lebanese politicians, the branding of Lebanese public relations firms, the coverage of media outlets, and the manipulation of social media networks.
The influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 has created contradictory sentiments among the broader population of Lebanon. On the one hand, there is an element of genuine human sympathy, which can be identified in numerous individual acts of kindness, generosity, and solidarity. One Lebanese mother opened up her dead son’s grave for a Syrian family to bury their son. He had died in a fire that consumed al-Raed Camp in the Bekaa Valley, and yet all the surrounding villages refused to have him buried in their graveyards.
On the other hand, political elites and forces, along with affiliated media outlets, propagate a dominant narrative that demonizes Syrians. They have actively scapegoated Syrian refugees and literally blamed them for economic, social, and security failures in the country. These discourses are then replicated echoed and contributed to through the daily politics of many individuals and groups, forging a xenophobic and racist popular culture that is anti-Syrian refugees. This scapegoating and dehumanization is not a function of some natural inclination toward racism. Rather, it signals a deep crisis that the Lebanese state and its ruling elite have been facing at least since 2005, which intensified during the 2015 garbage protests. This crisis is simultaneously political, economic, and social.
One must not lose sight of the fact that this most recent wave of anti-Syrian xenophobia has effectively diverted some of the social pressures and political frustrations that were targeting the government in particular but the political elites more generally. This is not new of course. Quite the contrary, these political forces have regularly deflected attention away from themselves, mobilizing parts of the population against the weakest bodies in the country: women, migrant workers, refugees, and the impoverished.
With the public caught up in the nationalist rhetoric of standing with the army and defending the nation, the political elite were able to use the Arsal operations and their aftermath to reset the public agenda. The elites effectively deflated significant (and angry) calls for protests against the government’s plans to pass a controversial tax bill. The public outrage against the government was, according to some analysts, poised to galvanize the public in ways reminiscent of the 2015 protests. Instead, many of those energies now took up alleged threat posted by Syrians and the need to defend the LAF against material and symbolic injury. This is evidenced by the fact that politicians convened a closed parliamentary session and indeed passed the controversial tax bill with little to no public scrutiny as to what was being plotted inside an illegitimate expired parliament. On Wednesday, 19 July, parliamentarians had passed a second legislative bill concerning taxes meant to finance the public sector wage hike. The bill was passed with some amendments. Article 11 of the bill imposed an exit travel fee for those leaving Lebanon through the airport. The new tax bill made all Lebanese citizens, independent of income levels, owe the same percentage as tax. The worker who earns a monthly salary of $400 delivering drinking water now pays the same tax rate as a millionaire who owns luxury apartment buildings on Beirut’s seafront. These new taxes were an addition to a different set of tax hikes approved in March, including an increase in the VAT tax rate to eleven percent.
Syrian and Lebanese: Victims of the Same Social Order
As the battle to “cleanse” Arsal’s hills was waged by LAF and Hizballah, all eyes were fixed on the extensive live coverage of the battle. The dominant public discourse was at its peak when centered in scenario that pitted a hero fighting a villain. The LAF was made to look like everyone’s protecting father and the “Syrians” were dressed in the role of the villain. As the battle intensified in the hills of Arsal, a public relations campaign swept the country. The LAF became a brand. Advertisement companies, who ran ads for banks, restaurants, and various economic sectors now pushed images of military men with sleazy catch phrases about protection.
One day, I was sitting and melting inside a taxi that was moving sluggishly through Beirut’s traffic. While the radio was playing nationalist songs interrupted by breaking news from the battlefield, a scene of wretchedness unfolded outside my passenger widow. In between bumpers, a frantic moth-eaten man was carrying a young girl who wrapped herself around his thin body. The man was holding a yellow money note in his other hand and anxiously waved down a woman across the street from him. His eyes were wide open in astonishment. As he shouted in the direction of the woman across the street, his voice grew more high-pitched. He beseeched her. Shuffling single-mindedly toward the man was a woman who pried herself from her shady spot under a massive rubber tree on the other side of the street from him. She began to zigzag her way between the slow-moving cars. The woman herself was holding an infant while two young boys clung to her as they tailed on her heels.
“Come over, move quickly, bring the children and hurry up. The man in the black car just gave me 10,000 liras [approximately six dollars].” This exhausted woman was merely reacting to her husband’s urgency and astonishment. “Come, come hurry up grab the bag of tissues and go to the man in the black car before he drives away. I’m telling you he gave me 10,000. Look 10,000.” The frantic husband flashed the yellow note for his wife to see. The struggling woman was clearly trying to maintain her composure, but her face failed to hide her embarrassment. Streams of sweat ran down her forehead. She pushed closer to the black car. But the traffic light flashed green and the black car drove away. As our car started to move away the husband’s voice broke out in anguish, shouting at his apparent wife who just missed their chance to perhaps score another 10,000.
While we sat in the car and watched this scene of a Syrian family struggling on the streets selling hand tissues and not yet begging, the taxi driver next to me snapped. “10,000? How nice, did you see that? The Syrians are living much better than us in our own country. Nothing is left for us.” The woman in the backseat and I both remained silent, dumbfounded by the humiliating experience that took place right next to us. After few seconds of silence, the taxi driver went on again, “I drive all day so I can take 40,000 liras home.” To this, I responded with “at least we are still sitting inside the car.” The driver, who was no older than forty, released his clinched hands from the steering wheel wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and replied “by god you are right, may god never bring us to such disgrace. May god help them get out of the street. What a terrible situation for us all, O god forgive us”. The car drove away from the scene of human devastation and the driver took out his generic pack of cigarettes and offered me and the other passenger to join him. As he lit his cigarette, inhaling deeply, the taxi driver went back to the usual line of resentful complaints cursing and insulting Lebanese politicians: “The thieves….”
[This article is published jointly in partnership with Salon Syria]