BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have begun ethnically cleansing Sunni Muslims and deliberately pushing refugees across the border into Lebanon, the Lebanese caretaker minister for social affairs said on Tuesday.
Assad is battling a Sunni-led revolt in Syria, which he and his father before him have ruled for four decades. He belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
Wael Abu Faour told Reuters that during the 27-month-old conflict Syrian forces had committed what was “tantamount to ethnic cleansing next to the Syrian-Lebanese border”.
“(Assad) is trying to displace all the Sunnis to Lebanon and this is why I expect to have more displaced people,” he said.
The Syrian revolt turned into a civil war after a crackdown on anti-Assad protesters. It has taken on a sectarian hue, with Shi‘ite Iran and Lebanon’s Shi‘ite Hezbollah militants backing Assad, while Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia support the rebels. The conflict has sharpened sectarian rifts in Lebanon.
The United Nations says 93,000 people have been killed in Syria and 1.6 million Syrians have fled abroad. Lebanon, the smallest of Syria’s neighbors with 4 million people, has taken in more than half a million Syrian refugees.
“What began was a wave of people fleeing from violence to Lebanon, but what is happening now is a completely different matter. What is happening now is organized displacement of the Syrian people - organized based on sectarian and political motives,” said Abu Faour, a frequent critic of Assad.
He made his comments after meeting U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who said that refugees in Lebanon and their local hosts needed direct support from world powers.
“My very strong appeal is for massive support not only to refugees, not only to local communities, but to Lebanon itself in order to be able to respond to this challenge,” Guterres said, adding that the Lebanese education, health, and social affairs ministries needed financial aid.
The United Nations has asked for some $5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrians and for Syria’s neighbors before the end of the year, its biggest emergency appeal to date. Of that, $1.7 billion will be required for aid work in Lebanon, including $450 million for the Beirut government, the U.N. says.
Diplomats say that foreign donors are unwilling to give money to Lebanon’s sectarian-based government which they see as deeply divided over Syria’s war and dysfunctional on domestic issues. Some ministers, such as Abu Faour, have been fiercely critical of Assad, while others strongly support him.
“Lebanon needs to formulate a mechanism to create confidence and trust in the government so that donors can increase their funding,” said the Swedish ambassador to Beirut, Niklas Kebbon.
Canadian ambassador Hilary Childs-Adams said her country was seeking reassurances that there was “a mechanism to send aid to Lebanon”. She said it was easier to send aid to Jordan, which hosts 470,000 Syrian refugees. On Sunday Canada pledged 100 million Canadian dollars to help Jordan cope with the burden.
During a visit to a UNHCR registration centre in the southern city of Tyre -- where employees say Syrians start queuing at 3:30 a.m. every morning due to the huge influx -- municipality workers told Guterres about issues they had dealing with the new refugees and a lack of support from Beirut.
Guterres said he would try to implement some of their suggestions into UNHCR’s work in Lebanon. He drew laughter from attendees when he added, with a chuckle: “As for the Lebanese state, there is not much we can do to fix that.”
Highlighting the difficulty of tackling the refugee crisis in Lebanon, Guterres’s trip was cut short by clashes in the coastal city of Sidon which he had been due to visit later on Tuesday.
Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Gareth Jones