Five former rebel fighters who fled Syria's southern province of Daraa have gone missing near Syrian embassy in Beirut last week, their relatives and friends told The National.
One of the men has not been heard from since he visited the embassy on Tuesday, while four others went missing on Friday. All five arrived in Lebanon illegally through smuggling routes in hopes of travelling on to another country, and disappeared shortly after collecting their passports from the Syrian embassy, said activists, relatives and a researcher at Amnesty International.
Toufic Fayez Qais Al Haji, who went missing on Tuesday, arrived in Lebanon last week and was abducted by unknown men as he left the embassy, his nephew Mohamed Taysir Al Haji said.
“We’ve been on the phone non-stop to find out what happened to my uncle, but we have no confirmation of his whereabouts,” he said.
There has been no official confirmation of the missing men's whereabouts, but their initials match those given in a statement released by the Lebanese army on Saturday to announce the arrest of six Syrians for entering the country illegally.
It said four of them were detained in the suburb where the Syrian embassy is located. An army representative confirmed to The National that they were the four men who went missing on Friday.
A Syrian embassy representative expressed surprise on hearing about the arrests.
“We had no idea about this and the embassy is closed on Saturday anyway,” the representative said.
“Army intelligence must have arrested them outside the embassy. It seems they came here illegally with smugglers.”
Human rights activists fear that the men may be deported to Syria at a time when President Bashar Al Assad's regime and allied forces are escalating attacks on rebels in Daraa. At least 38,000 people have been displaced from the province in the past month, the UN said on Tuesday.
Lebanon was under Syria’s influence for nearly 30 years. Syrian troops withdrew in 2005, after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. An international court found he had been killed by an operative working for Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime.
Iran-backed Hezbollah is militarily involved in Syria’s 10-year civil war alongside Damascus.
Mr Al Haji was a former rebel faction leader in Daraa who fled to Beirut after Syrian regime forces told him his presence would put his village in danger of siege or attacks, his nephew, who is in Turkey, said.
He said he had learnt of his uncle's fate from a Syrian man living in Beirut who had since stopped taking his calls.
Syrian activist Omar Alhariri identified the four men who went missing on Friday as his friends Mohamed Abdel Ilah Sulaiman Al Waked, Mohamed Said Al Waked, Ahmed Ziad Al Eid and Ibrahim Majed Al Shamri. They fought the Assad regime until 2018, when Daraa was retaken by Damascus.
He blamed the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon for their arrest and said Lebanon was no longer safe for Syrians.
“Lebanon is not safe. The Lebanese human rights and media community must strongly unite to protect Syrians inside Lebanon and to prevent turning Lebanon into a state of gangs and kidnappings,” he said on Twitter.
International law entitles former combatants who have renounced violence to claim asylum.
Mr Alhariri said he had asked Lebanese authorities to allow the men to leave for a third country instead of returning them to the Syrian government, which since July has tightened its siege on Daraa Al Balad, a district within Daraa province.
He said his friends arrived in Beirut through smuggling routes from Syria, days before their disappearance. They went to the embassy to collect their passports and had been out of reach ever since.
“Last I heard, they told their roommate they were at the doorstep of the embassy and that if they didn’t hear from them it meant something went wrong,” he said.
The Syrian embassy is enclosed in a secure area, near the defence ministry, guarded by soldiers and is accessible only through checkpoints.
The disappeared men are said to be among the fighters who agreed to a Russian-brokered “reconciliation” deal with Damascus in 2018.
The fragile truce collapsed in late July after regime forces and their allies launched an offensive on the rebel province, where the Syria uprising began in 2011.
Beirut has a history of deporting refugees back to Syria, Diana Semaan of Amnesty International said. She urged the Lebanese authorities to investigate the disappearances and to refrain from deporting any of the men.
Lebanon has a population of six million and is home to an additional million Syrian refugees.
“It’s the first time refugees go to the embassy and then disappear. This is why these cases are particularly alarming,” said Ms Semaan, a Syria expert.
“For them to go missing in Lebanon is problematic because we do have a history of deportations, legal and illegal, of Syrian refugees.”