National Security & Defense

The Road from Damascus

Lebanon has a crisis of Syrian refugees.

Beirut — Abdel Rahman was taking his sons, Hamid Ali and Nasser, to school one morning in Aleppo, Syria, when he saw that the school had been bombed. He rushed them home, only to discover that his home had been destroyed, and his wife and young daughter killed — two of the more than 60,000 civilians killed in Syria’s war so far. Grieving and desperate, Abdel packed his boys in a van and fled to Lebanon. They now live in the van, parked in a poor Christian neighborhood in Beirut, where the locals bring them food, offer bathrooms, and have even run a power cable to the vehicle. On Christmas Eve, Georges Maalouly, an Orthodox Christian, brought Abdel’s sons, Sunni Muslims, Christmas presents.

By any standards, Abdel has little in the way of material goods. Yet he has more than many Syrian refugees, and his children at least have one parent. In Beirut’s Hamra district, Syrian refugees, including many children, may be seen wandering about without any shelter at all. There are approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (For comparison, the United States would have to absorb 90 million refugees to obtain such a proportion.) There are another million in Turkey and Jordan, and several million others are internally displaced. Roughly 30 percent of the refugees in Lebanon are located in the Beirut area; another 50 percent are located in the Beqaa Valley to the east, which stretches the length of the mountainous border with Syria.

At the southern end of the Beqaa Valley begins the road to Damascus, which, these days, is not easy to travel. Near the road, just outside Damascus, is the village of Koukab. There, Saul of Tarsus is said to have fallen from his horse and heard the voice of God, who asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul, a Hellenized Jew, would become Paul, and revolutionize the small sect of Jewish Jesus followers into a religion with a universal mandate.

Two millennia later and throughout the world, Christianity flourishes. But in the region where this faith that now has more than 2 billion adherents began, its disciples are daily victims of religious intolerance and worse. The road to Damascus was once traversed by pilgrims, en route to holy sites and retreats, such as Maaloula — where al-Qaeda affiliates seized an entire order of nuns, whom they still hold hostage. Today, the road is principally a means of escape for Syrians fleeing a war that enters its fourth year and shows no signs of ending.

Masnaa, the last Lebanese town before the border, is filled with refugees; makeshift tents that failed to keep out December’s snows; mud; trenches filled with feces ; and, everywhere, children. The name of the town in Arabic means “industry,” but there is nothing like that here. The nearest approximation is the exploitative rents charged to refugee families for a small patch of ground on which to pitch a tent, in one instance $200 per month. A young woman in the niqab, which reveals a hint of her pale skin and deep blue eyes, tells of her husband getting up repeatedly to clear the snow off their tent in the night before it finally collapsed in on them. Many of the refugees are Bedouin; some lived the traditional nomadic lifestyle until only a generation ago, and are relatively comfortable living in tents. The dehumanizing conditions (exposure to the elements, unsanitary arrangements, food shortages) are nonetheless disconcerting. The children, apparently oblivious to their plight, gather for photos in which they smile and uniformly flash the “V” sign with their fingers in protest against the regime of Bashar Assad.

To the north, away from Masnaa and the road to Damascus, is the Christian city of Zahle, from which one can see the Beqaa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, which divide Syria from Lebanon. During the Lebanese civil war, Zahle became a symbol of Christian resistance, holding out against the Syrian army for 100 days in 1982. Marwan, a young Christian from Zahle, walks us through the cathedral, in which a bomb was planted during the war. “It is called Our Lady of — I’m not sure of the English word, but it means ‘surviving.’” (Some translate it as “deliverance,” others “salvation.”) Among its murals is an icon popular in the late Byzantine era, when the empire was surrounded on all sides by enemies: the resurrected Christ ripping Adam and Eve from the tomb on Easter morning, conquering death.

Farther north is the predominantly Shiite city of Baalbek, whose Greco-Roman ruins are visible from the highway. Along the north-south roads of the Beqaa Valley, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have formed temporary shelters. Kamal, a Lebanese man who works for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), explains how the war has brought out much good, despite the sectarian divide. Shiite and Christian alike welcome the predominantly Sunni refugees, whose tents are pitched beneath billboards of Bashar Assad and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. I ask Kamal if this is not improbable, and he laughs: “It is crazy, yes.” If there is much inexplicable violence in the region between Sunni and Shiite, here there is an inexplicable peace.

North of Baalbek, the road splits. To the northeast is the road to the Greek Catholic town of Qaa, the Syrian border town of Al Qusayr, and the city of Homs, from which many Christians were driven out in 2012–13. To the northwest is Deir Al Ahmar, which holds the same type of tents, and more than 7,000 refugees. It is also home to the Good Shepherd Sisters. When the conflict in Syria began in 2011, the Sisters were tending to poor and drug-addicted members of the community. Soon Syrians came over the mountains to the Beqaa Valley — first by the dozens, then by the thousands. With support from CNEWA and Caritas, the Sisters have been able to provide shelter and food to the refugees, and have set up a primary school, where refugees make up the teaching staff.

Kamal points east to a mountain range that marks the border with Syria. “On the other side is Maaloula, then Tabrud, then Homs,” he says. This is where some of the most bitter fighting is taking place. Millions of Syrians continue to suffer, at the hands of a ruthless regime and still more ruthless Islamist militants. And so refugees continue to come.

The last time this many refugees fled into Lebanon was 1948–49, after the establishment of the State of Israel. It did not take long for the Palestinian-refugee camps to become hotbeds of Palestinian resistance, which have now given rise to two generations of professional terrorists — including monsters such as Abu al-Zarqawi. Today, the Syrian camps are already hotbeds of radicalism, such that Syrian Christians do not feel safe in them, and must find refuge elsewhere. For this reason, as much as the Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian crisis, it is also a national-security crisis.

Last year I asked Reverend Majed El Shafie, an Egyptian human-rights activist who now lives in Canada, whether Syria was in danger of becoming the next Afghanistan. He replied gravely, “Syria already is the next Afghanistan.” If recent history is any guide, from Syria’s war will come the next generation of terrorists, recruited from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. But few if any will come from Deir Al Ahmar.

There is little reason to doubt that generational hatreds and jihadi violence will endure. Accordingly, one will hear it said that there simply are no “good guys” among the difficulties in this region. This is not so. Amid the torture and beheadings and worse, there are glimmers of hope. Abdel Rahman and his sons, continuing their lives in the face of terrible losses, and the Christians of Beirut play out the parable of the Good Samaritan on the modern stage: Not the coreligionist, nor the countryman, but the foreigner and the outcast are his neighbor. The Good Shepherd Sisters teach a similar lesson in a valley of unexpected peace.

— Andrew Doran served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State.

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.


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