On the Lebanon-Syria border: As the fighting in Syria intensifies, many Lebanese fear that the conflict could spill over the border, upending the fragile sectarian balance holding their country together and sparking another bloody internal conflict fuelled by regional powers.
Clashes have erupted along the border in recent weeks, causing alarm among Lebanese politicians and the public that Syria’s army might escalate military attacks against the country for sheltering opposition rebels, potentially drawing in other regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“The violence is becoming worse and it’s becoming more complicated,” a former senior security official in Lebanon said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “There will be more of a Syrian intervention if the rebels increase attacks.” The possibility that the Syrian conflict could spread across Lebanon’s borders, and further destabilise the entire region, is also worrying to the United States.
“The United States also remains concerned that the Syrian regime’s use of violence against its own people is contributing to instability in Lebanon,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said on a visit to Lebanon in mid-July. “We stress again the responsibility of the Syrian regime to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.”
A July 21 cross-border attack was only the latest and most dramatic incident, with the Syrian military shelling and shooting into Lebanese villages that it said were harbouring Syrian rebels, leaving at least a dozen people dead and many more wounded since May. That day, Syrian rebels launched an assault on the military in the village of Joussieh and dashed across the border into Lebanese territory.
The Syrian military came barrelling over with some 30 soldiers. Fifteen Lebanese were wounded in the raid, and one house was burned down by Syrian troops. “The Syrians accused the Lebanese of helping the rebels.
They came in shooting and raiding houses,” said Wissam, a resident who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used because he feared for his safety. “The Lebanese army sees all the violations, but they don’t interfere because they want to avoid confrontation.”
That attack stirred public outrage among opponents of Syria’s government here. Lebanese President Michel Sulaiman asked the Foreign Ministry to send an official complaint letter to the Syrian ambassador in Beirut, who some Lebanese said should be expelled.
But the complaint got tangled up in sectarian and regional alliances, a common feature of Lebanese politics. Lebanon’s foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, is a member of Amal, a Shiite political party that is a strong supporter of the Syrian government, and the letter he ultimately sent to the ambassador fell far short of a formal complaint.
Meanwhile, Free Syrian Army fighters easily cross into the country. In one small village in northern Lebanon, more than 20 fighters use an abandoned building only a stone’s throw from the border as a meeting point and safe house.
Most of the fighters have brought their families with them and have found small rooms to rent in villages along the border. Many of the men worked as labourers or smugglers before taking up arms and know the area well.
“These men can carry out an operation at night like it’s daytime,” Shehab, a stocky young fighter wearing a blue track suit, said, while pointing towards a Syrian border checkpoint. He asked that his last name be withheld to protect his safety.
Shehab, 29, commands a group of Free Syrian Army fighters in the town of Tel Kalakh and says he was shot in his left leg in June during a fierce clash with the Syrian army. He couldn’t walk and it took his comrades seven days to get him to Lebanon for medical treatment. But he says he’s ready to go back now.
There aren’t many civilians left in Tel Kalakh, and the fighters say they want revenge against the Syrian army and pro-government Shabiha militia. The Syrian security services carried out brutal torture and killings in the town last year, actions documented in a report compiled by Amnesty International.
The fighters are mindful of the problems that their presence can cause and several insisted that they don’t bring their weapons with them into Lebanon. Still, the Syrian military has hammered the area around their safe house with artillery shells and mortars in the past month.
“The people in the north of Lebanon are all sympathising with us, so we feel safe,” Shehab said with a grin. But not far away, the official border crossing in the town of Wadi Khaled was raided by Syrian army troops on July 2.
The Syrian soldiers crossed the frontier, took potshots at the border station and kidnapped two members of the General Security service who were released a short time later.
On a recent visit to the border crossing, the bullet holes in two border shacks on the Lebanese side were visible, as was a large poster of President Bashar Al Assad in military uniform with the phrase “Syria, God protect you” a short distance away. “The Syrians said there was an attack from our side,” a Lebanese border guard who was not authorised to speak officially said with a shrug. “It didn’t come from here. But it’s a long border. We can’t control everything.”