Syrian refugees fear escalation of violence as US mulls action

Syrian refugees stand outside their tents, at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Marj near the border with Syria, 28 August 2013 Wealthier refugees from Damascus have started to flee ahead of possible strikes

The Lebanese government says there are now a million Syrians living in this tiny Mediterranean country of just 4.5m, and some 600,000 are officially registered as refugees.

Last week, as Western powers weighed up a military response to the Syrian government's apparent use of chemical weapons, Lebanese security sources reported more than 10,000 Syrians entering each day.

At al-Masnaa border crossing in the Bekaa Valley a lot of new arrivals come from government-controlled areas of Damascus.

Speculation that US-led air strikes will soon take place has brought business people and more affluent Syrians.

Many remain in the nearby Lebanese mountains until the threat subsides, but some head to Beirut.

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Many Syrians are angry that the world is only now seriously considering how to react to the extreme violence in their country”

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"We will stay away for a while," says a smartly dressed student who has just come to the Lebanese capital. "If I could get a visa I would go overseas for a time, but it's very difficult."

"For now it's safer in Lebanon," adds his friend as they sit together in a coffee shop discussing their plans. "We have left most of our families behind, so it's very worrying."

Anxiety

While many Damascenes fear any US-led military intervention, Syrian refugees from areas where government forces have targeted opposition groups believe it will help.

In Akkar in northern Lebanon, families from in and around Qusair are now living in an abandoned slaughterhouse.

Their strategically important area in western Syria was in rebel hands for more than a year before it fell to the army, in some of the fiercest fighting of the civil war. They are desperate for the situation to change so that they can rebuild their lives.

Local Comittee of Irbin photo shows Syrian children hold signs during a demonstration in Irbin town, suburb of Damascus, Syria, on 2 September 2013. Children appeal to the international community at a demonstration in Irbin, one of the Damascus districts affected by the attack

"[Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] has to be hit to decapitate the regime. We're out of danger here but we've left our livelihoods and businesses. My husband has no work and we just want to go home," says one housewife.

"It's unfortunate that Britain decided not to hit Syria, but I hope that the US will do something."

A teacher, Safwan, agrees international action should be taken against the Syrian authorities but has clear reservations.

"I believe if Western powers strike Syria this will be a strike against my country, but that's the only solution left to us," he says.

"Our armed militias have not been able to finish this conflict once and for all because of the imbalance of power. We wish it could end in an hour. We just want it to end."

Assad prepares

President Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional consent next week before taking any action means that the Syrian government, its allies and the opposition have time to lobby American politicians about how to vote.

The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, wants them to approve military action against President Assad and provide the rebels with more arms.

Opposition forces are poised to take advantage if President Obama orders what he has described as "limited, narrow" punitive action for the suspected use of poison gas in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August.

Yet there are warnings too that the longer he takes to decide what to do, the longer the Assad government has to prepare its response.

Already there are reports it has moved troops, rocket launchers, artillery and heavy weapons into residential neighbourhoods.

Pro-Assad demonstrators wave flags and shout slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and against a possible US strike at Mount Qasioun, Damascus on 1 September  2013. President Assad supporters staged protests against a possible US military strike, such as this one on Mount Qassioun in Damascus

Reports suggest that political prisoners are also being moved to military targets to be used as human shields.

"Now there should be a decision very fast. There should be a clear plan on how the international community is going to attack and what will happen to the civilians," says Maan, a Syrian human rights worker living in Beirut.

"We have information that Assad's groups are hiding among civilians and that the regime is acting much more violently than before."

Many Syrian activists I meet in Lebanon are angry that the world is only now seriously considering how to react to the extreme violence in their country.

They believe that if Washington acts it will be to protect its own national security interests and those of its regional allies: Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

"The international community has been talking for more than two years now," one man, Kinan, tells me.

"Unfortunately they only decide maybe they should take action when it's chemical weapons. Does that mean it doesn't matter how the rest of the 100,000 Syrians died?"

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