MASNAA, Lebanon: A few thousand Syrian nationals lined up Tuesday to cross into their country to vote, a paltry amount compared to last week’s fanfare outside the Syrian Embassy in Beirut.
By the end of the day, General Security sources estimated that a total 10,000 Syrians had crossed over to vote, with the majority, 8,000, entering from the Masnaa border crossing in the Bekaa valley, and the remaining from Arida, Abu Diyeh and Bikaya in north Lebanon. The low turnout comes after the Lebanese government threatened to revoke the refugee status of Syrians who return to their country.
The Masnaa crossing appeared to run smoothly as General Security personnel checked passports and organized entry and return, issuing special 48-hour transit permits.
“I’m going [to Syria] to check out the situation. If Ghouta is OK, I will stay,” said Fteim Talaa, 25, who came to Lebanon 20 days ago from Ghouta in rural Damascus.
Talaa, whose husband has been missing for a year, said she would vote for Assad “so that Syria would go back to the way it was.”
“We were living in security before the war and all the destruction came from the Free Syrian Army,” she said.
Voters were given a yellow card to re-enter Lebanon within 48 hours in order to participate in the polls being held in the Syrian town of Jdaidet Yabous. General Security border personnel will keep a record of registered refugees returning to Lebanon after voting in light of the new policy, a security source said.
“When they go, we don’t ask if they are a refugee,” explained the source. Rather, upon returning, the yellow cards of registered refugees will be stamped and a list of their names sent to the Interior Ministry. He added that he was as yet unsure about the purpose of compiling the list, as it was the subject of ongoing discussion between the Interior Ministry and UNHCR.
The scene at Masnaa stood in stark contrast to the chaos that reigned at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze last week, when tens of thousands showed up to vote, blocking the street for hours. The voting at the Syrian Embassy was widely criticized in Lebanon, with several figures saying the scene was more of a demonstration in support of the Bashar Assad regime than an exercise in democracy.
Shortly after the first round of voting, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said security concerns prompted the Lebanese government to amend its policy for Syrians.
He denied it was any sort of political retaliation for the largely pro-Assad demonstrations that took place at the embassy.
The turnout at the border Tuesday could have been affected by the change in Lebanon’s refugee policy, which took effect Sunday. It is unclear what effect Lebanon revoking refugee status would have, since Lebanon is not a signatory to the international refugee convention and does not actually recognize refugee status. Almost none of the Syrian nationals who spoke to The Daily Star were registered refugees.
“Our main concern is to go back to our country, our hope is for the president to end this crisis,” said Leila, who came from Labweh in the Bekaa Valley to vote.
A young Syrian man who wished to remain anonymous said he was voting for Hassan al-Nouri, one of two presidential candidates running against Assad.
“Maybe someone new would be good for the country,” said the young man, who lives in the Damascus neighborhood of Al-Midan and travels often between Lebanon and Syria.
Another man, from Qunaitra, said he would vote for anyone but Assad, despite knowing almost nothing of the two candidates running against him whose campaigns he described as “not serious.”
“I’m voting for freedom,” he said. “It’s worth a try, but it would be better if there were international bodies [monitoring the election].”
He admitted many people were voting out of fear of the regime, but still intended to vote for one of Assad’s approved opponents.
However, numerous Syrian refugees were able to cross illegally into Syria in order to avoid official entry points. Some traversed valleys, fields and roads along the rough terrain stretching 40 kilometers between borders east of Hermel.
In the town of Al-Ain, hundreds of refugees demonstrated the Interior Ministry’s policy, saying it had prevented them from exercising their right to participate in the election.
Alternatively, some refugees, vocally supportive of the opposition, applauded the government’s policy.
“We thank the Lebanese government for taking such a decision because if someone really wants to vote then they shouldn’t have left Syria,” said Mohammad Khodr from Wadi Khaled.
“If you came here as a refugee, then you shouldn’t vote,” he added.
The voter turnout sparked the ire of the Future Movement in the Bekaa, who said they might set off altercations in the future between Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees.
“Now that their political stance has been made public, many believe their previous [claims of fleeing persecution and support for the opposition] was deceitful,” said a Future bloc official who requested anonymity. “These elections will not go unnoticed, we my re-evaluate the Syrian file.”
The official crossings in north Lebanon – Arida, Abu Diyeh and Bikaya – saw little activity, where cross-border movement was significantly less than average. For instance, 5,000 Syrians typically cross Arida daily, but those numbers dwindled to around 700 on the day of the election.
Assad is running for his third term as president of Syria, amid a civil war that is now in its fourth year and estimated to have killed 200,000 people and displaced millions. The vote has been widely disparaged as a farce by opposition figures and Western officials.
Back in Masnaa, several women who had been turned away for a lack of documents and who also declined to give their names said a Syrian regime supporter had “gathered and brought” them to the border to vote.
They insisted, however, that they would vote for Assad freely, because they wished him to restore the country so they could return.
“Look what happened to me, to us,” she said with a sad smile. “Half my brothers and sisters are gone, either dead or in jail.”
She declined to give her name. – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih and Antoine Amrieh