Syria's heavy influence over Lebanon tempers government reaction to cross-border attacks, but Lebanese near the border don't feel the same constraints – and their patience is waning.
Tel Bire, north Lebanon
When Syrian Army artillery shells strike inside Turkey or the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Turkish and Israeli armies are usually swift to retaliate.
But when Syria targets Lebanon’s northern border areas with shells and airstrikes – usually targeting Syrian rebels and their hideouts – the Lebanese government is torn between sending a diplomatic protest or ignoring the incidents altogether, with the Lebanese army doing little but taking note of the attacks.
Beirut's hesitancy to react to rising incidents of Syrian cross-border fire illustrates how deeply Syria’s two-year conflict overshadows Lebanon's national interests. It dominates the political and security agendas, polarizes many Lebanese along sectarian lines, and leaves many fearing where this will lead as the war in Syria intensifies.
Syria no longer dominates Lebanon with the same authority it wielded before 2005, when Syrian troops were deployed across the country. But Damascus retains influence in Lebanon, chiefly through its political allies, such as the Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, which complicates the Lebanese government's ability to respond to its breaches of sovereignty.
“We need the Lebanese army to deploy up here. If the army was here, they could catch the [Syrian rebel] gunmen, terrorists, call them what you like, and then the Syrians would not fire on us,” says Mahmoud Karam, an elderly farmer from the village of Tel Bire in northwest Lebanon.
The village’s residents are drawn from the Alawite sect, an obscure offshoot of Shiite Islam which also forms the backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Karam’s impatience with Syrian rebels hiding in Lebanon is one widely shared among the residents of several small Alawite villages strung along Lebanon’s northwest border with Syria, marked here by the limpid green waters of the winding Kabir river. But surrounded by Sunni-populated villages whose residents support the rebels, Karam and other Alawites prefer to keep to themselves.
“We water our fields and that’s it,” he says as he picks through a tray of fragile tobacco threads. “No one bothers us here.”
But a few miles to the west in the coastal village of Arida, where the Kabir River flows into the Mediterranean, the Sunni residents say they have seen a visible increase recently in the number of Syrian soldiers and the reinforcing of Syrian Army positions along the northern bank of the river. Lebanese residents interviewed along this stretch of the border say they have seen Syrian soldiers removing land mines previously planted to deter rebel infiltrators. The removal of land mines has hardened speculation that the Syrian Army may be planning cross-border raids.
“If they invade us, they will meet hell here. We will turn the river red with their blood,” says Mohammed, one of several young men sitting on the side of the road drinking mate, a herbal tea from South America that is popular in Syria and Lebanon.
A freshly bulldozed earth berm lines the Syrian side of the river and sandbags are stacked on the balcony of the Syrian customs building 300 yards away. A Syrian flag flutters from the roof and two large portraits of Assad on the side of the building stare across the river at Lebanon.
The minaret of a mosque and several homes on the southern bank of the river facing Syria are pockmarked with bullet holes, the result of routine machine gun fire from Syrian troops, the local residents say.
“They shoot at us almost every night. And we shoot at them too. We all support the revolution here,” says Mohammed.
That support for the Syrian rebels is the reason why since last summer the Syrian military has shelled stretches of Lebanon’s northern border, partly in an attempt to hit fighters infiltrating from Lebanon into Syria, and partly to punish their Lebanese hosts. On three occasions in the past week, Syrian aircraft have staged air raids against small farmhouses in a remote mountainous pocket of northeast Lebanon where Syrian rebels are suspected of hiding out.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman described the first air strike as an “unacceptable violation of sovereignty” and instructed Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour to issue a letter of complaint to Damascus. Syria denied having breached Lebanese sovereignty and Mr. Mansour, an ally of Damascus, said further investigation was necessary before a formal complaint could be made.
The recent uptick in cross border shelling and the air strikes reflects growing anger in Damascus at what it considers are insufficient efforts by the Lebanese authorities to curb the activities of Syrian rebels.
On March 14, Syria issued a warning to Lebanon that it would retaliate if Lebanon continued to allow “armed terrorist gangs” to infiltrate.
“Syrian forces are showing restraint by not striking these gangs inside Lebanese territory to prevent them crossing into Syria, but this will not go on indefinitely,” the Syrian foreign ministry said in a letter of protest.
The Lebanese army finds itself caught in the middle. It is politically unable to retaliate against Syrian artillery guns, as the Turkish and Israeli armies have done in the past. But pursuing and arresting Syrian opposition fighters in Lebanon risks angering the Sunni community which supports the rebels.
Still, Lebanese troops mounted a rare crackdown on suspected rebels Thursday in Masharih al-Qaa, a flat agricultural area along the northeast border which is used by rebel fighters to slip in and out of Syria. At least 10 Syrians were arrested for possession of light arms.
But the Lebanese Army has a long way to go if it wishes to stamp out the Syrian rebel presence altogether, especially as it appears that weapons are being distributed to Syrian rebels and Lebanese Sunnis in parts of north Lebanon by a mysterious benefactor. In one Sunni-populated village, three men held a heated argument over the disappearance of a pile of weapons, with each accusing the other two of selling the arms on the black market.
The prices of black market weapons have soared since the uprising in Syria broke out two years ago. With a good quality AK-47 assault rifle fetching some $1,700, the lure of a quick profit appears to have outbid sympathy for the Syrian rebels.
All three men insisted on strict anonymity, including their location, before discussing the issue. They would not discuss the identity of the sponsor, nor whether the weapons being disbursed were purchased on the domestic black market or secretly smuggled into Lebanon from overseas. However, they expressed some bitterness at the Syrian rebel fighters whose cause they support.
"We were told to give weapons to the Syrians first, but we are going to arm ourselves first," says one man, inspecting a newly acquired AK-47 rifle.
Another man said that the Syrian rebels had been given weapons, but had grown "cocky."
"They are going down to the river [on the border] and firing at the regime soldiers whenever they want. Then the Syrians shell us. We should keep the weapons under our control," he says as his companions nod in agreement.
But the Syrian army is not the only armed force shelling areas of north Lebanon. The Shiite border village of Qasr in the northern Bekaa has been struck twice in the past month by rockets fired by Syrian rebels. On Wednesday, five 107mm Katyusha rockets exploded in Sahlet al-Maa, on the western edge of the village, without causing casualties or damage. Two small rockets struck the center of Qasr last month but failed to explode.
“Of course, people are very worried. So far we have been lucky but it looks like a pattern of rocket fire against us has started,” says Rakkan Jaafar, the local mayor.
Qasr is a stronghold for Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which the Syrian opposition accuses of sending fighters into Syria to assist the Assad regime in crushing the rebellion. A cluster of villages populated by Lebanese Shiites on the other side of the border from Qasr has become a battlefront, with Hezbollah militants fighting rebel forces for control of the area. The Syrian rebels have repeatedly warned that they will shell Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon if the Shiite party does not withdraw from Syria.
“The problem will come when a [Syrian rebel-fired] rocket hits a home and kills people,” says Abu Ali, a businessman and Hezbollah supporter from the nearby town of Hermel. “When blood has been spilled, you will see the mortars and missiles coming out of the basements and the local people will go to war.”