Al-Assad aligned parties pressure Syrian refugees in Lebanon to legitimize upcoming presidential elections

A billboard calling people to take part in the Syrian presidential elections - 12 May 2021 (Enab Baladi - Orwah al-Mundhir)

A billboard calling people to take part in the Syrian presidential elections - 12 May 2021 (Enab Baladi - Orwah al-Mundhir)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

In an effort to legitimize presidential elections to be held on 26 May, the Syrian regime’s political arms in Lebanon are pressuring Syrian refugees and threatening them into voting no later than 20 May at the Syrian embassy in Lebanon.

The issue of pressing Syrian refugees in Lebanon to participate in the upcoming elections was raised recently after the Lebanese L’Orient-Le Jour newspaper published on 30 April a report in which it mentioned that Lebanese political bodies had begun pushing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to the polls.

The newspaper mentioned that “Syrian organizations aligned with the government of Bashar al-Assad and pro-Assad Lebanese political parties and individuals have been making the rounds to cajole and — according to some — threaten Syrians into registering their names on voter lists and going to the polls.”

According to the newspaper report, the Association of Syrian Workers in Lebanon, a pro-Assad group that works in coordination with the Syrian embassy, issued a statement urging Syrians in Lebanon to vote in the elections, which it called an “important milestone in the contemporary history of Syria, which defeated terrorism, siege, and sanctions.”

On 3 May, a group of al-Assad’s loyalists marched the streets of Jabal Mohsen neighborhood in Tripoli and chanted slogans in support of al-Assad, such as “God, Syria, and Bashar!” This outraged activists who described the support rallies as a “thugs rally.”

Threats against Syrian refugee activists in Lebanon

Amidst fears of talking to the press, especially in areas under the influence of Syrian regime allies, Enab Baladi spoke to four Syrian activists who have confirmed threats and pressure attempts against Syrians in Lebanon, while an activist denied any threats of this type.

Walid Mohammed, a human rights activist in the Baalbek area, talked to Enab Baladi under a pseudonym for security reasons and said that since about mid-April, pro-Syrian regime entities started pressuring Syrian refugees in Lebanon into voting, including Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the Baath Party, the Association of Syrian Workers in Lebanon and others.

The pressure exerted by the aforementioned parties was carried out by instigation and intimidation. Refugee camps witnessed aid distribution campaigns with calls and slogans encouraging them to vote, while active and distinguished individuals known on the ground and trusted by refugees also participated in pushing people towards voting. At other times, pro-Assad parties intimidated refugees by threatening to burn down their camps or evict, kidnap, or inflict physical harm on them.

Activists in refugee camps are contacted and told to distribute forms to be filled by inhabitants of Syrian camps in Lebanon, Mohammed said. Activists are chosen for this task because they are allowed to move freely between camps, whether to distribute aid or to deliver awareness sessions on any subject, such as on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, to pass voting forms through the sessions.

“They gave me a form to fill out, but I refused, and then they started threatening me on the phone. Now I’m afraid to get out of my area, but I’m not changing my position,” the activist told Enab Baladi

UNHCR’s indifference to activists’ appeals

Mohammed informed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office about the threats he received on the phone, and the employees there told him to try to change his number.

Enab Baladi contacted another activist in the Beqaa region, who works as a volunteer with international organizations, and said that he came under intimidation on 19 April.

The activist documented the incident in a letter and submitted it to the UNHCR office. Enab Baladi viewed the letter in which the activist mentioned that he received a call from an unknown number that surprised him with personal information about himself, his work, and his place of residence. The caller gave him a week to write down names of Syrian refugees in the region who can vote in the upcoming presidential elections. 

A week after the first call, the same person called the activist again, insulted him, and threatened him for failing to fill out the form with voters’ names. The activist told Enab Baladi, “I started to fear for my family’s safety and myself after the threats. I locked my phone for two days, and I didn’t get out of the house.”

The activist repeatedly called the UNHCR office in Zahle city to inform them of the incident, but the UNHCR did not respond to his letter until a week later, asking him to change his phone number and accommodation address.

For his part, Mohammed said that the UNHCR is unable to protect Syrian refugees in Lebanon, given its limited powers within the country’s current situation and power division among influential parties. Still, Mohammed thinks that the UNHCR can remove threatened people outside Lebanon or coordinate with the Lebanese government to ensure their protection in Lebanon.

Human rights NGOs take moves  

The executive director of the Access Center for Human Rights, Mohammed Hassan, said the center had documented numerous attempts to pressure Syrian refugees into participating in the presidential elections in Syria.

According to Hassan, this type of abuse against refugees is performed by anti-refugees political parties aligned with the Syrian regime. Deportation or arrest threats are directed to Syrian refugees unwilling to vote in the upcoming elections.

Political parties’ affiliate individuals pressure Syrian refugees living in Lebanon-based camps to get involved in the elections, exploiting their weak position. Camp managers are also subjected to intimidation for the same reason.

The center held the Lebanese authorities fully responsible in case any of the refugees were directly or indirectly abused. It called on Lebanese authorities to intervene urgently and for the  UNHCR to ensure that the refugees are made aware of their freedom to make their own choices and protect them against threats.

A legitimizing attempt and media promotion

Aron Lund, a Syria specialist at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, told L’Orient-Le Jour that “turnout of the elections is important to Syrian authorities because a large turnout would be seen as visible evidence of Assad’s power even after all these years of war.”

Lund said “the large number of foreign diplomats and journalists in Lebanon makes such spectacles more visible than inside Syria. The visuals of large crowds of refugees gathering to vote at the embassy in 2014 were valuable for the Syrian government because it showed that Assad retained a measure of genuine support and, more importantly, that many Syrians still felt the conflict was undecided and were not willing or able to cut ties with authorities back home,” according to the newspaper.

The election optics could inform future discussions around refugee returns, the newspaper cited Lund.

“If Syrians in the diaspora can be made to vote in large numbers, the government will use that to market itself as a necessary and credible partner in organizing refugee returns,” Lund said.

International rejection of 2021 Syrian presidential elections

While the Syrian regime’s allies, particularly Russia and Iran, support the forthcoming Syrian presidential polls, the international community announced its rejection of the election and its results. 

On 21 April, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in a press conference that the United Nations (UN) is not involved in the Syrian presidential elections, stressing the importance of reaching a political solution under UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

“Syria’s presidential elections have been called under the auspices of the current constitution, and they are not part of the political process established under Resolution 2254. The UN is not involved in the upcoming Syrian elections and has no mandate to be,” said Dujarric.

The UN official stressed the importance of reaching a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria before any elections.

Early this year, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) declared their rejection of the Syrian presidential elections and pledged accountability against the regime.

In a March interview, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Vice-President of the Commission, Josep Borrell, told Enab Baladi that “if we want elections that contribute to the settlement of the conflict, they must be held in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254, under supervision of the UN, and seek to satisfy the highest international standards.”

He added, “they must be free and fair, all candidates must be allowed to run and campaign freely, there is a need for transparency and accountability and, last but not least, all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, must be able to participate.”

Borrell stressed that “the regime’s elections later this year cannot fulfill these criteria; therefore, they cannot lead to international normalization with Damascus.”

Intimidations in Lebanon during Syria’s 2014 presidential elections

In 2014, the Heinrich Böll Foundation published an article entitled “The Syrian President is Being Made in Lebanon? Rumors and the Syrian Presidential Election in Lebanon,” by the senior adviser at the British Research Centre, Chatham House, Haid Haid.

According to the article, “The Syrian presidential elections of 2014 were an event of special significance for Syrians and Lebanese alike, since holding these elections entailed prolonging the humanitarian and political crisis suffered by Syrians and the societies and states that play host to them.”

The article mentioned that some of the participants in the elections were motivated by a “genuine desire,” while others were afraid of the consequences of not taking part in the elections, with rumors circulating, urging people to get involved, and threatening them with dire consequences, including the revoke of their Syrian nationality or preventing them from entering Syria in case they abstained from voting.

The article listed the factors and circumstances surrounding the 2014 presidential elections, including the fear of having one’s nationality revoked, triggered by laws that have contributed to a strong push for rumors urging participation in the elections. 

Back then, some refugees whispered that heavily built men driving cars with blacked-out windows had suddenly appeared in the camps and demanded to see their identity documents in an attempt to say that Syrian refugees in Lebanon were still within the al-Assad regime’s reach.

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