Syria-Lebanon Border: A Show of Force
By: Afif Diab
Published Friday, August 3, 2012
Heavy army deployment seems to have curbed cross-border smuggling in the Bekaa, while turning the Lebanese side into a 2-5 km-wide security zone.
Things have changed along Lebanon’s eastern borders with Syria over the past few days. It is no longer possible to move freely on the Lebanese side to observe military developments inside Syria, or make contact with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters who used to infiltrate into Lebanon at night – whether seeking medical treatment for wounds, or to take back military and other equipment and supplies. The Syrian army no longer tolerates any suspicious movement along the border. The days of the ineffectual hajjana (camel corps) border police are over. Wandering near the border, even on the Lebanese side, is sufficient reason to get shot at.
The Syrian military has withdrawn all the hajjana and replaced them with heavily armed combat troops, making the cross-border smuggling of people and goods virtually impossible, in an attempt to establish a security zone between two and five kilometers wide on the Lebanese side of the border.
Lebanese security sources told Al-Akhbar that heavy Syrian military reinforcements have been deployed in recent days along a long stretch of the border, from Dair al-Ashayer in the southeastern Bekaa, up through Tufail and the Arsal Heights, to the Masharie al-Qaa area in the northeastern Bekaa and the illegal border-crossings in the vicinity. They said that “the Lebanese side was informed of some of the details” of the deployment.
The Syrian army has also swelled its presence at the legal border crossings, such as Jdaidet Yabous on the Beirut-Damascus highway and the Jousieh crossing near al-Qaa. It has started regular night-time deployments of combat troops supported by tanks, artillery and machine guns along the highway east of Jdaidet Yabous inside Syria. Earlier this week, the FSA made an attempt to take control of the highway between Jdaidet Yabous and the Zabadani junction, but was foiled by the army reinforcements. The army captured more than ten FSA fighters who had tried to set up a roadblock in the Zarzar area, the sources said.
The sources said the Syrian army has also deployed new surface-to-air missile batteries near the border, in the Kfar Yabous valley and overlooking the Lebanese village of Tufail, in addition to artillery units, which were used some days ago to shell targets in Zabadani and Madaya in Syria. These could be clearly heard in nearby villages.
The first to notice the build-up were shepherds in the area of Dayr al-Ashayer, Helwe and Kfarqouq in the southeast, who used to cross the border freely to graze their flocks in the fertile pastures on the Syrian side, but suddenly found themselves barred. Local people said they found tanks and armored vehicles had been moved up to the border, and dug in behind barriers and fortifications. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” remarked a local shepherd.
The same has been happening further north, around the Tufail enclave, and right along the border from the mountains east of Ersal, down to the Masharie al-Qaa area, which has witnessed occasional clashes between the Syrian army and Syrian rebels and Lebanese gunmen who support them.
The Syrian army has erected new earth barriers all along the border between Ersal and Masharie al-Qaa, and soldiers have been seen removing trees that could obscure their line of vision into adjoining Lebanese territory, the sources said.
They said the Lebanese army had also reinforced its positions in these areas and set up new observation posts.
Local people said it had become dangerous to venture into orchards and farmland in Masharie al-Qaa because of the risk of being shot at, and that illicitly crossing the border had become virtually impossible.
“Traffic has been reduced to just about zero in the past few days. We no longer see Syrians crossing in,” said Abu Muhammad, a local supporter of the Syrian rebels. He said injured Syrians used to be routinely brought into the area, to be moved on to hospitals in the Bekaa or North Lebanon. “But it is no longer possible for them to come, because the Syrian military measures have become more severe,” he said. He added that people living close by the barriers set up along the border line have left their homes and moved further away.
Abu Muhammad – who maintains contact with the FSA and its Lebanese supporters by wireless – said an unsuccessful attempt was made by rebels a few days ago to seize the Syrian Jousieh border-post. He said the army responded by reinforcing its presence there, deploying tanks and armored vehicles along with elite combat troops.
“We can no longer get a needle in or out,” he remarked, adding that the Lebanese army had also beefed up its presence in the area. “There are constant patrols preventing us from approaching the border line.”
Similar moves by the Syrian army were reported by residents of the border area around the villages of Hosh Sayyed Ali, al-Mizariyeh, al-Nahriya and al-Dawra.
From Hosh Sayyed Ali, which is separated from Syrian territory by a stream no more than half a meter wide, military patrols can be seen on the Syrian side in a state of constant alert. Residents of the Lebanese village said calm was restored to the Syrian side of the border by the deployment of the army there instead of the border police. They said the Syrian army allows them easy access to their farmland on the Syrian side without complicated procedures.
This is friendly territory for the Syrian army, and the villagers who move about under its gaze have an “understanding” with it that they will not allow “outsiders” to use the village to infiltrate into Syria. This extends to not allowing journalists to take pictures of the Syrian troops and positions. Syrian soldiers meanwhile continue coming regularly to the village to buy food and cigarettes, as they have done for years.
Locals denied recent reports that a clash had taken place near Hosh Sayyed Ali between Hezbollah and FSA fighters, saying that there was no FSA presence at all near the village – and that they mostly support President Bashar al-Assad.
A number of Lebanese, Arab and foreign journalists are known to have crossed from Lebanon into Syria in recent days via illegal crossings under the auspices of the FSA working with professional smugglers. Informed sources say several groups of journalists, including camera crews, were taken to a location near the border in the Bekaa, from where they were led across into Syria by FSA fighters and on to destinations in the vicinities of Homs and Damascus.
Although some foreign journalists have travelled from Lebanon to Syria legally, more – including representatives of global media corporations – are expected to try to enter via the illicit route.
The sources say smugglers now charge around $2,000 per head to take people illegally into Syria, whereas the cost did not exceed $500 before the Syrian military build-up.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.