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 fueled by regional powers.
Already, 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 destabilize 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 along the border, with the Syrian military shelling and shooting into Lebanese villages that it said are harboring 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 also came barreling over with some 30 soldiers. Fifteen Lebanese were wounded in the raid, and one house was burned down by the Syrian troops.
“The Syrians accused the Lebanese of helping the rebels. They came in shooting and raiding houses,” said Wissam, a resident of the area 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 up public outrage among opponents of Syria’s government here. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman 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.
The two countries share a complex and troubled history. For years, Syria has treated Lebanon like a province rather than a neighboring country. Syria’s military entered Lebanon ostensibly as a mediating force in 1976, shortly after the beginning of the civil war, but didn’t leave for nearly three decades.
Many Lebanese have dark memories of the occupation and the extensive Syrian intelligence network that carried out random arrests and torture. In fact, one of the key figures in the Syrian regime that handled the Lebanon file was Assef Shawkat, who was among the four top officials killed in a July 18 bomb attack in Damascus.
Syria’s military was expelled in 2005 after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. But it still supports a wide security and intelligence network in Lebanon, which it could potentially call on to help crack down on cross-border attacks from Lebanese territory.
It’s unlikely that the Syrians would hit back with similar attacks at their larger and more powerful northern neighbor, Turkey, whose top officials openly host the Syrian military and political opposition and have publicly called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The Lebanese government says it is doing its best to secure the border with Syria, and a brigade of soldiers was sent to reinforce army positions in the past week. But Lebanese politicians realize they are sitting on a powder keg, analysts say.
“The Lebanese government has decided on a hands-off policy. Whichever side they take it could get them into trouble,” said Timur Goksel, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut who was a member of the United Nations monitoring team in Lebanon for many years.
Syria also has deep ties with Hezbollah, the largest and most well-armed group in the country whose supporters are predominantly Shiite Muslims. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, there is a danger that any spillover of violence could lead to an all-out battle between the allies and enemies of the Syrian regime in Lebanon.
The situation is already very tense. In late May, 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria as they made their way back to the Lebanese border. That kicked off a series of tire burnings and calls from Lebanese Shiites for revenge against Syrian opposition supporters and their allies in Lebanon, until Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah called for calm. It’s not clear who carried out the kidnapping — the larger opposition groups in Syria have denied any role — but many Shiites in Lebanon still blame the Free Syrian Army, whose members are mostly Sunni Muslims.
Last week, three Syrians were kidnapped in the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold, raising concerns that the group’s supporters were trying to exchange hostages for the pilgrims in Syria. The three Syrians were eventually released. But on Monday, three others, who may have been opposition activists, were reportedly kidnapped in the southern suburbs of Beirut, another Hezbollah stronghold, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper.
A reporter for Russia Today in Beirut received a disturbing text message, allegedly from the kidnappers. “This is only the beginning. . . . All those involved with the Syrian opposition in Lebanon or those who support it will be targeted until the 11 abducted [pilgrims] return safely to their homes,” the Daily Star reported last week.
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 laborers or smugglers before taking up arms and know the area well. “These men can carry out an operation at night like it’s daytime,” said Shehab, a stocky young fighter wearing a blue track suit, while pointing toward 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, which was 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 sympathizing 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 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 authorized to speak officially, said with a shrug. “It didn’t come from here. But it’s a long border. We can’t control everything.”
Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.