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PoliticsMiddle East

Lebanon: Killing of official unleashes fury against Syrians

Jennifer Holleis | Abbas al-Khashali | Mohamad Chreyteh
April 12, 2024

The murder of local politician Pascal Suleiman is still under investigation. But accusations are already being politicized against the backdrop of the ongoing political and economic crisis in sectarian Lebanon.

Lebanese Army lines up a group of Syrians accused of illegally crossing into Lebanon from Syria
Lebanese officials estimate there to be around 2 million refugees in the country, many of them illegallyImage: Lebanese Army Website/AP Photo/picture alliance

The atmosphere across Lebanon is heated following this week's killing of Pascal Suleiman, a local politician belonging to the Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces party.

On Sunday, Suleiman was kidnapped and killed near Byblos, some 38 kilometers (23 miles) north of Lebanon's capital, Beirut. On Monday, his body was found across the border in Syria.

Lebanese officials have alleged the slaying was part of a car theft, but Suleiman's political party suspects political motives.

Pascal Suleiman, a local politician of the Lebanese Forces party, in front of a microphone
The killing of Pascal Suleiman has been politicized ahead of the results of the ongoing investigationImage: Lebanese Forces

Some sections of the population, however, have started blaming the country's large contingent of Syrian refugees.

A myriad of footage on social media shows angry crowds yelling at Syrians to leave their shops and houses, and return to Syria.

Other videos show Syrians being beaten, while cars and motorbikes with Syrian license plates are smashed up.

"We haven't left the house for two days and we are so, so scared," Abu Mustafa, a Syrian refugee in Byblos told DW. "I don't know what to do for my family. I don't dare to step onto the street."

"We didn't do anything, so why do people think it is our fault?" Abed, a Syrian man in Byblos, asked DW.

Bassam Mawlawi, Lebanon's caretaker interior minister,  has meanwhile urged the population "to be rational" and show "restraint."

However, he also stated at a press conference on Tuesday that the "Syrian presence in Lebanon must be limited," without indicating how this should or could be done.

The Lebanese government estimates that around 2 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Lebanon. Many of them, however, are not officially registered. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 784,884 Syrian refugees were registered in Lebanon as of December 2023. 

Syrians are being scapegoated

"Instead of investigating attacks against Syrian refugees, the state simply allows lynch law to continue," Anna Fleischer, director of the Beirut office of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, told DW.

This is not the case everywhere, she added. "But certainly in places where Syrian refugees are particularly unpopular, such as in Christian-dominated neighborhoods, or towns such as Byblos."

Across Lebanon, however, Syrian refugees are increasingly being criminalized. It's becoming harder and harder for them to obtain legal papers and residence permits, Fleischer added.

Mohanad Hage Ali, deputy director for research at the Beirut-based Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, sees the fury against Syrians after Suleiman's death as "a new wave of alarmism against the unmanaged Syrian refugee crisis."

In his view, independent of the outcome of the ongoing investigation, "the handling of the refugee crisis will constitute a priority in Lebanese politics in the near and medium future." 

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes in Khiam, Lebanon, on February 7, 2024
The Lebanese Forces party opposes Hezbollah's presence in the country and their fight against Israeli forces in Lebanon's southImage: Taher Abu Hamdan/Xinhua/picture alliance

Suleiman's death is being politicized

George Akouri, a Lebanese journalist in Beirut, told DW he would not rule out that Suleiman's killing would be politicized "to increase tensions between the population and Syrians, specifically between the Lebanese Forces supporters and Syrian refugees in Lebanon" on the one hand, and to "divert attention from what Lebanon is witnessing at the border with Israel" on the other hand.

"The Lebanese Forces are hostile to Syrian refugees, whose protracted presence threatens the prominence of Christian parties in Lebanon's politics," said Kelly Petillo, a Middle East researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "And they also consider Hezbollah to be public enemy No. 1."

The political wing of Hezbollah has strong representation in the Lebanese parliament, as well as running local hospitals and other facilities that benefit its supporters.

However, several countries, including the US and the European Union, consider the military wing of the Iran-backed militia a terrorist group.

Hezbollah are especially present in Lebanon's south, where they launched attacks on Israel's north on October 8, a day after Hamas, which Germany, the US, the EU and other deem a terrorist organization, carried out the deadly attacks on Israel that triggered the current war in Gaza.

Since then, fighting in the border region between Israel and Lebanon has been ongoing and many Lebanese fear the war may spill over.

Meanwhile, however, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has rejected accusations of being involved in Suleiman's death as baseless and dangerous sectarian rhetoric.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks in a televised address via a video link in front of masses of people.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has rejected accusations of being involved in Suleiman's deathImage: Hassan Ammar/AP

Impartial investigation 'unlikely'

So far, the authorities have yet to present the outcome of the investigation that should determine if Suleiman was the victim of a Syrian carjacking gang — seven Syrians have been taken into custody and the body was found in Syria — if his death was politically motivated, or if Suleiman's role as head of IT at Byblos Bank, one of the country's largest banks, had anything to do with the murder.

Due to the political and economic crisis in Lebanon, thousands of bank customers — many of them Syrians — have been barred from withdrawing their deposits since October 2019.

Furthermore, Lebanon's current caretaker government remains without a state president, meaning the government has only limited powers.

For Kelly Petillo, it's therefore "unlikely we will ever have an impartial investigation on Pascal Suleiman's death due to the chaotic state of Lebanese politics."

However, she also does not believe his death will cause further instability in Lebanon.

"It will rather feed into already existing dynamics, which are very toxic in and of themselves," she said.

How Hezbollah secures its power inside Lebanon

Edited by: Lucy James

Correction, April 13, 2024: A previous version of this article included a translation error in a quote by George Akouri. This has been corrected, and DW apologizes for any confusion.