Battle on Lebanese border illustrates broader implications of Syrian revolt

May 15, 2011

The gunfire ricocheted deafeningly across the sloping fields of strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and wheat that span the Lebanese-Syrian border along this remote corner of northern Lebanon.

On the Lebanese side of the border, hundreds of people, most of them Syrians who had fled the fighting at home, took cover behind farmhouses and peeked over walls to watch the battle raging just a few hundred yards away, between Syrian troops and unspecified assailants who, the Syrians said, represented “the people” they had left behind.

“The people,” the Syrians said, were attacking a Syrian army post, and in this instance the people seemed to win. Two rocket-propelled grenades exploded near the post with whooshes and ground-shaking blasts, a Syrian army truck burst into flames, and the gunfire temporarily subsided.

Exactly who the people were and how they had acquired arms weren’t made clear, but many of the Syrians watching the fight said Sunni Syrian soldiers had defected that morning and turned against the minority Alawite regime.

“It’s war,” said Mohammed, 19, a student and protester who escaped into Lebanon on Sunday. “Now this is a fight between Sunnis and Alawites.”

On a day when Israeli soldiers killed at least 12 people who had joined protests along Israel’s borders with Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, this barely noticed firefight, far to the north on the Lebanese-Syrian border, threw into sharp relief the danger that the unrest in Syria will escalate into an armed conflict that could engulf the wider region.

Three Lebanese civilians and a soldier were wounded by bullets that strayed into Lebanon during the fighting, and the Lebanese army rushed reinforcements to the border area. Whether there were casualties on the Syrian side of the border was not known.

Hundreds of Syrians have flooded into Lebanon over the past two days, fleeing the latest onslaught aimed at crushing the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, this one in the town of Tal Kalakh, 1.5 miles from Lebanon.

They came with witness accounts of killings, destruction of homes and mass detention of citizens since Syrian tanks rolled into the town before dawn Saturday. In the distance, the steady crump of Syrian tank fire could be heard. Human rights groups reported seven deaths Sunday, but the refugees described seeing bodies piled up in the streets as they fled, suggesting the toll may be higher.

The refugees also offered insights into the complexities of the battle underway for control of Syria between the Assad regime and the largely leaderless and the mostly unarmed popular protest movement.

How much longer it will remain unarmed is in question, however. Many of the protesters who escaped Sunday said the Syrian army was in the process of splitting along sectarian lines, with Sunni troops joining the opposition against soldiers from the Alawite Shiite sect to which Assad and most members of his regime belong.

“There are two armies now, the army of Maher al-Assad and the army of the people,” said Tal Kalakh resident Radwan, who like others interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by his first name. He was referring to Assad’s brother, who is in charge of the army units that have spearheaded the military crackdown.

The attack on the Syrian army post was waged with the help of the defected soldiers, he said. “We only have the weapons we own for our personal protection,” he said.

The reports of a split in the Syrian army could not be independently confirmed, and they are not the first to emerge during the two-month-old revolt. But none appears to have added up to a significant breach of loyalties that would threaten the regime.

Wardah, 22, a Syrian soldier who deserted and escaped to Lebanon a week ago, said many troops are unhappy with their shoot-to-kill orders. But he seemed doubtful that the army would break with the regime, as it did during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

“God willing, the army will split,” he said. “But the officers won’t. The officers are loyal to the regime, and they shoot the soldiers if we refuse to shoot the people.”

Shortly after he spoke, a van driven by regime opponents hurtled across the border carrying two Syrian soldiers who the protesters said they had captured. The soldiers, a Sunni and an Alawite, insisted that they had deserted to avoid having to fire on civilians. They were handed over to the Lebanese army.

But even though the protesters insist they don’t carry arms, they live alongside Lebanon, where almost all citizens are armed and where the Sunni-Shiite divide closely mirrors the one in Syria. The mountainous border is loosely guarded, and there have been numerous reports that weapons have been smuggled across in recent weeks.

The Syrians from Tal Kalakh cast the conflict in stark Sunni-Alawite terms, saying the regime has armed Alawite citizens to fight their mostly Sunni townspeople. They said Shiite Iranians, wearing black face masks to disguise their identities, and snipers from the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah movement are helping the regime.

Although that assertion seems highly unlikely, it points to the broader implications of the Syrian revolt, unfolding in a country that lies at the intersection of most of the region’s conflicts and largely out of view of the world.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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