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Lebanese fear being drawn into conflict

More and more shells landing in Lebanese territory

Gulf News

Beirut: In the northern Lebanese border province of Wadi Khaled, the muffled sound of shelling in neighboring Syria has been a daily occurrence since the revolution began against President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in March 2011. For over a year, this neighboring region has been a refuge for people fleeing the violence with Lebanese families consistently offering a safe haven to those in need. Recently however, bombs have been landing across the porous border into the Lebanese territory with Pro Assad forces reacting militarily to accusations that families are harboring Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, allowing them to regroup, re-arm and plan counter attacks on the safety of Lebanese soil

Initially shelling took place at night, forcing families to leave their villages and homes in the care of a few armed men while they sought safety for the night elsewhere. Recently however the nightly shelling has lasted well into the day and there are reports the Syrian army is planting landmines on both sides of the border to prevent FSA members smuggling weapons into the country. The cross border attacks that have ensued have left several dead and many wounded by fire coming from the Syrian side.

In Dar el Zahra’a, an after care hospital in Tripoli, its not hard to find patients wounded on Lebanese soil. One man left with no arms and only one leg, sobbed as he remembered the shell that hit his home “we thought we were safe in Lebanon, my daughters were playing outside when I heard the bomb, I ran to save them but then everything went black. When I woke up, I was in Tripoli; I had lost both my arms and a leg. I kept asking for my girls, but they both died. I can’t believe this has happened to me”

Further Lebanese troops have been deployed to the area in recent days as increased attacks fuel speculation that Lebanon is being sucked into cross border conflict. This weekend the FSA attacked an army post in the Arsal region on the border, without fatalities, the second such attack in under a week. It’s unclear why they attacked the army, but rumors suggest the FSA has been angered by their role in preventing the flow of weapons between the two countries and distrust runs deep when they see the Lebanese Army as a division backed by Damascus and Hezbollah. A communiqué for the army said “The army leadership will not allow any party to use Lebanese territory to implicate Lebanon in events in neighboring countries, and reaffirms its determination to protect Lebanese territory.” President Michel Suleiman reiterated the point telling the National News Agency on Saturday that “The army’s operation falls within the context of the policy of dissociating Lebanon from regional struggles”

Despite deployment to the border however, the army’s position is representative of the divisions between political parties over the Syrian conflict. The Western-backed opposition support the uprising while the dominant Shiite group Hezbollah strongly support President Bashar al-Assad. Such divisions firmly tie military hands. Retaliating with fire into Syria is not a viable option nor however is arresting FSA members. The north of the country is made up predominantly of Sunni Lebanese who sympathize with the rebels; clamping down on revolutionary militants would further ignite anti government sentiment within these areas.

Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold and Lebanon’s second largest city has witnessed a barrage of violence in recent months that has left 17 people dead and over 120 wounded.  The situation in Syria has deepened tensions between Tripoli's Sunni Muslim majority and (pro Assad) Alawite minority. Disputes between the two communities have resulted in heavy clashes either side of the ironically named “Syria Street” and residents fear any moment renewed fighting will begin. The army has been called in to calm tensions but local leaders have urged them to maintain a presence in the city. Former MP Mosbah Ahdab said “ The Lebanese government needs to take a decision at the highest level giving protection and a free hand to the Lebanese forces and the ISF. They must request that they not only be present in the center of Tripoli but allow them go deep into the city to forbid any visible weapons ”

The conflicts are many and complicated as is often the case in this country, but fears that the violence in Syria may re-ignite divisions that caused the 15 year civil war in Lebanon are, for now, stronger than a desire for fresh sectarian conflict. The more the divided Syria becomes however; the harder it will be to keep those divisions at bay.