Attacks against Syrians in Lebanon surge after killing of Christian party official

Murder of Lebanese Forces official Pascal Sleiman has sparked a wave of anti-Syrian violence

Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

This week, drivers for Toters, a well-known Lebanese food delivery app, say their shifts have been assigned under an unconventional new system: Lebanese drivers are given deliveries in Beirut’s Christian areas, while Syrians are tasked with deliveries in Muslim districts.

This new arrangement reflects a worrying trend in Lebanon, as Syrians say it has become too dangerous for them to venture into Christian areas.

“I'm terrified to go to East Beirut. Our managers say that things will return to normal once tensions ease, but for now, it's just too risky, with Syrians being arbitrarily assaulted on the streets,” said Ahmed*, a 24-year-old Toters delivery driver from Syria.

His reference to 'East Beirut' refers to the division of the Lebanese capital between the broadly Christian-controlled east and Muslim-controlled west during its civil war (1975-1990), a divide that still shapes demographics today.

Syrians are facing a surge of violent attacks following the killing of Pascal Sleiman, a senior official of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian political party that has historically opposed the presence of large numbers of Syrians in the country.

The Lebanese army said that Mr Sleiman was killed on Monday in a carjacking attempt by a Syrian gang who took his body to Syria.

The Lebanese Forces said it would consider Mr Sleiman's death a “political assassination until proven otherwise”, rejecting the Lebanese army's findings. The party has long been enemies of the Syrian regime in Damascus, which occupied Lebanon from the end of the civil war until 2005, and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

Both the Syrian government and Hezbollah have been accused of attacking and assassinating their political opponents, including officials from or close to the LF.

In a speech on Monday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied his group was involved, saying such false allegations would stir up “very dangerous” sectarian tensions.

On Friday, hundreds attended Mr Sleiman’s funeral in Byblos, in a ceremony presided over by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.

LF leader Samir Geagea, a former civil war militia leader, called for the “failed, corrupt” authorities in Lebanon to be changed.

The patriarch said Syrian refugees “are now a danger for the Lebanese,” and “we must find a solution to this”.

Many LF supporters have taken their anger out on Syrians in Lebanon. About two million Syrians are living in Lebanon, according to Lebanese authorities, with 800,000 registered as refugees with the UN. Lebanon is thought to have a total population of about five million, including Syrians.

The status of Syrians remains a highly sensitive issue, especially since 2019, when Lebanon plunged into what the World Bank has described as one of the worst economic crises in centuries.

Against this backdrop of tensions and economic challenges, reports of attacks against Syrians have surged.

'Go back to Syria!'

Some residents in mainly Christian areas have attempted to impose curfews on Syrians, to force them to leave, security and UN sources told The National.

There were "dangerous reactions" in the wake of the killing of Mr Sleiman in several Christian areas, including outside Beirut, in Tabarja, and Byblos, a Lebanese security source confirmed to The National.

The source also reported that some people in Beirut's Christian neighbourhoods had set a "deadline" for Syrians to leave the areas by Friday and imposed an unofficial "curfew" for them.

A UNHCR source told The National that they have been receiving reports which “indicate that local residents in different Lebanese towns are issuing threats of mass evictions against Syrians, creating an environment of fear and intimidation.”

Some of this violence has been captured on videos, widely shared on social media, showing what appears to be Syrians being assaulted in random streets or subjected to public humiliation by groups of unidentified men.

“There's no humanity left. These people have nothing to do with the killing,” Ahmad said.

In the Christian neighbourhood of Ein El Remmaneh, The National spoke to Lebanese owners of a restaurant whose Syrian employee ended up in a hospital after being assaulted by a group of men because of his nationality.

“There were about 10 men, some masked and others not. They asked if he was Syrian, and then started beating him. They ran off when the army arrived,” the owner said.

The owner said the employee did not know the assailants.

“The army took our cameras, so they should be able to figure out what happened.”

No one has been arrested yet, the owner said. The driver has been discharged from the hospital.

“It's terrible. He's a genuinely good guy, works hard, and has nothing to do with any of this. They're targeting the wrong people,” the owner added.

“But others in the neighbourhood have a different perspective,” she warned.

Mohamed, 36, a Syrian resident of Ein El Remmaneh, said he also witnessed the scene.

“They shouted insults at him, telling him to go back to Syria. I felt offended, helpless, and absolutely terrified,” he said.

“I’m now constantly stressed, hyper-aware of my movements. I avoid unfamiliar places, especially in Christian areas, which I've completely stopped visiting for some parts.”

He said he is now considering moving to another neighbourhood.

“These people prey on the weak to assert their dominance, Syrian refugees are the most vulnerable in our society. And nobody seems to be taking action."


The LF has officially “rejected” the violence, which it described as “suspicious in terms of form, content, and timing."

“The Lebanese Forces stress that demanding the return of Syrian refugees to their homes is one thing, while acting with hatred and brutality is completely different,” the party said.

Bashir Saade, a lecturer in politics and religion at the University of Stirling, told The National that although the official position of the Lebanese Forces is to advocate for a return to calm, “the off-the-record script is to let the violence escalate.”

“The Lebanese Forces may be capitalising on these events, as their political survival, as a Christian party, hinges on sectarian considerations.”

Politicians from various parties have frequently called for the return of refugees to Syria.

On Tuesday, Lebanon's caretaker Minister of Interior Bassam Mawlawi called for a reduction for the number of Syrians in Lebanon.

“The Syrian presence in Lebanon must be limited and we emphasised to the security forces the need to strictly enforce Lebanese laws on displaced Syrians.”

Ramzi Kaiss, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National that the situation is “extremely concerning, especially given the heightened discriminatory rhetoric used by Lebanese officials to scapegoat an entire refugee population”.

“Anti-Syrian violence and discrimination have been happening for the past years. Lebanese society is in turmoil, especially the Christian community,” Mr Saade said.

The Syrian man who witnessed the assault, Mohamed, said that informal checkpoints set up by militia-like groups of men have existed for at least a year.

“My friend’s son was assaulted at one of these checkpoints. This happened well before the killing of Mr Sleiman,” he said

In July, Human Rights Watch denounced a wave of deportations, as the Lebanese Army summarily deported thousands of Syrians between April and May, including unaccompanied children, back to Syria.

“The violence is not new, it's only getting worse,” Mohamed said.

Jamie Prentis contributed to this report

* Names have been changed on request of the interviewees

Updated: April 14, 2024, 11:30 AM