Is Lebanon becoming Syria's Western front?
With Syrian rebels sheltering in Lebanese border towns and Syrian Army troops planting land mines on both sides of the border, Lebanese fears of getting dragged into the conflict are rising.
NOURAT AL-TAHTA, north Lebanon
Anti-Assad politicians in Lebanon are calling for the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers along the country's volatile northern border with Syria to curb Syrian troop incursions and artillery shelling as some locals pack up their bags.
The calls come amid rising concerns that Lebanon's northern border, where support for Syria's rebels runs deep, is being dragged into the worsening conflict next door. But the request for a UN presence is likely to go unheeded, given Lebanese government opposition and international reluctance to risk getting embroiled in the conflict by dispatching foreign troops.
The Lebanese government, the bulk of which is composed of allies of Damascus, says it will take a strong stand against Syrian border violations but rejects the idea of allowing UN peacekeepers into north Lebanon.
"When the Syrian shelling of Lebanese areas occurs, we will not disassociate ourselves but will protest," Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, told reporters earlier this month. "When there are attempts to destabilize Lebanon from Syria, we will not disassociate ourselves, and we will take necessary measures.”
But he ruled out the deployment of the 11,500-strong UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL in south Lebanon to the north. "Is it the right time?" he asked rhetorically. "Is UNIFIL ready to deploy along the border?"
Last week, the parliamentary coalition requested the deployment of UNIFIL troops along the northern border and the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador to Beirut and lodged a complaint with the Arab League at Syria's repeated border violations.
UNIFIL has been present in south Lebanon since 1978 but was heavily reinforced in the wake of the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah organization. The UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which defines UNIFIL's post-2006 mission, includes a clause that permits it to help the Lebanese authorities prevent the smuggling of arms into Lebanon. The clause specifically refers to preventing the transfer of weapons from Syrian territory to Hezbollah's arms caches inside Lebanon.
But as far as pro-government Syrians are concerned, the security problem is on the Lebanese side of the border, where members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are hosted by sympathizers who give them a haven to regroup, plan operations, treat wounded, smuggle arms into Syria, and mount periodic cross-border attacks against Syrian Army positions.
The scale of FSA activity in north Lebanon is minimal compared with that of Turkey, the main external base of the armed Syrian opposition. But the nightly Syrian artillery bombardments of a string of Sunni-populated border villages in the Akkar Province of north Lebanon, as well as cross-border raids elsewhere along the frontier, are attempts to interdict FSA militants crossing the border and to punish their Lebanese supporters.
In Nourat al-Tahta, a small, hardscrabble village less than a mile from the border, the strain of enduring nightly shelling is beginning to take effect.
"We are very worried that the Syrians will cross the border and invade the village," says Abu Hussein, a farmer who is hosting a number of Syrian refugees and FSA militants in his small house. "Some farmers are selling their livestock and moving out of the village because they are so worried about the Syrian soldiers coming here."
One burly, bearded member of the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade, an FSA unit from the eponymous town two miles north of the Lebanese border, says his job is to smuggle weapons into Syria, a task that has grown even more hazardous since Syrian troops began lacing both sides of the border with land mines to catch infiltrators.
It's unclear if the Lebanese authorities are aware of this recent and seemingly localized development of land mines on its territory, but the issue is unlikely to be addressed either way due to the dangers in approaching this section of the border.
He recalls a trip he and eight other men made days earlier, crossing the Kabir River, which marks the border, laden with backpacks filled with rifles and ammunition.
“I and one comrade had crossed the river when we heard an explosion behind us on the Lebanese side. Two of the guys had tripped a land mine and lost a leg each,” he says.
The FSA fighters say that they are seeking ever more sophisticated weapons to confront the Syrian Army, which has the advantage of air power and artillery.
“We are negotiating the purchase of a Strella for $9,000,” says Mohammed Layla, a Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade unit commander, referring to the SAM-7 anti-aircraft missile available on the Lebanese black market. They are also attempting to purchase a multiple rocket launcher and 16 107mm rockets.
“They are asking $70,000, but we are telling them it’s too much,” Mr. Layla says.
The Lebanese Army has reinforced its presence in the northern border area, but there is little more it can do. Returning fire at Syrian Army positions is politically out of the question. But chasing and detaining FSA militants in Lebanon will simply incur further anger from Lebanese Sunnis who support the Syrian opposition and already distrust the Army.
If elements from UNIFIL or fresh UN forces were deployed to the northern border to support the Army, they, too, would face the same constraints, analysts say. They could also find themselves once more in the jihadist firing line.
The threat posed by Lebanon-based Al-Qaeda-inspired factions toward UNIFIL seems to have dissipated lately. UNIFIL has suffered several bomb attacks since 2006 by suspected jihadist factions, but now the desire to attack UNIFIL appears to have been overshadowed by the call to jihad in Syria, which is drawing Sunni Islamist militants from across the region into an epic struggle against the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus and its Shiite allies in Iran and Lebanon.
“The Sunni giant has awakened and the Caliphate State will soon see the light,” he told Lebanon's Al-Liwa newspaper.