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Fearing U.S. missiles, Syrians flood neighboring Lebanon

The main border crossing between Syria and Lebanon was thronged Wednesday with Syrians intent on fleeing what many locals believe will be a series of American-led airstrikes against Syrian government targets over the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons last week against rebels.

Lebanese media outlets – which tend to employ hyperbole on refugee matters – said tens of thousands of Syrians had used the Masnaa border crossing in the past 48 hours to flee the more than 2-year-old rebellion that has killed more than 100,000 people and threatens to enter a new phase of Western involvement. Lebanese security sources put the numbers substantially lower but said they were believed to be in the thousands.

Lebanon already has seen the arrival of what some groups – including the United Nations – estimate are more than 700,000 Syrians fleeing the fighting. The refugees already have stressed the resources and economy of Lebanon, with a pre-Syrian war population of about 4 million religiously diverse and politically fractious people.

Millions of Syrians have been displaced by the fighting throughout that country and at least 2 million, according to the U.N., have ended up in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. But the announcement by the U.S. administration that it would strongly consider airstrikes in response to an alleged chemical attack by the regime last week that killed hundreds of people sparked a new round of evacuations.

“Syria could be on the edge of an abyss. This war has resulted in a humanitarian calamity without parallel in recent history,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said from Iraq, which is hosting at least 200,000 displaced Syrians. “When a war sweeps up a nation, there can be nothing more important to its people than open borders.”

Many of the Syrians waiting in the reasonably orderly queues to enter Lebanon – Syrians and Lebanese can cross each other’s borders without a visa – appeared to be wealthy and middle-class representatives of Damascus’ mostly pro-regime merchant class. And many appeared to already have had their families flee before them.

“I’m just coming to visit my family in Beirut,” said Abu Rami, a regime supporter and businessman from Damascus who only gave a partial name, as he waited on line to enter Lebanon. “They’ve been here since last summer while I run my business. But with this news, I decided to come visit them for a bit.”

When asked how long he planned to stay, he was noncommittal.

“Ask Obama,” he joked.

With tensions already stratospherically high in Lebanon after a series of car bombs alternated between pro- and anti-regime neighborhoods earlier this month, the authorities appeared willing to take soft measures to deter as many Syrians as possible. Local media reported that any Syrian with any sort of irregularity in their paperwork would be denied entry at the normally fairly lax border crossing.

Security officials denied that Syrians were being targeted but said the stream of refugees was large enough to convince authorities to “ensure all procedures are properly followed,” in the words of one official who declined to give his name.

Many Lebanese blame the 1975-1990 civil war on hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon in the 1940s and 1960s, and their continued presence in semi-autonomous camps around the country remains politically controversial.

But even as rents rise amid a housing shortage in Beirut and some working class Lebanese begin to compete with cheaper Syrians for jobs, many Syrians despair of any other option.

“My house and life were in Homs,” said Abu Muhammed al Homsi, a refugee in northern Lebanon. “But my house and city have been destroyed by shelling and my country is now hell. I can’t return to nothing.”

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