Syrian Fighters and the Lebanese Coffee Break
By: Ziad al-Zaatari
Published Wednesday, July 4, 2012
As the crisis in Syria drags on, armed Syrian opposition groups increasingly enjoy “impunity” operating in Lebanon’s complex political map, turning in the process many areas in the country into safe havens for R&R.
Syrian opponents of the regime have become accustomed to residing in Lebanon. Although they accuse the intelligence agencies of going after them, they generally move about freely, except in a few areas. Many consider parts of the country to be a support base for the “Syrian Revolution”.
There is nothing distinctive about their appearance: trimmed beards, and sometime clean shaven. A few of them travel in cars with tinted windows, but others drive about unconcealed in Lebanese rental vehicles.
They frequent the restaurants and cafes, talking politics and security, doing deals, and taking bets on when the regime will fall. Their talk turns from predicting the hour of reckoning, to recalling their fallen martyrs, to analyzing international statecraft and strategy, to discussing post-Bashar Syria.
Nothing wrong with that. But among them are experienced fighters – rebels who took part in killings in Syria and are in Beirut for rest and recuperation, some having suffered mental traumas from the horrors they witnessed.
At a cafe on Beirut’s famous Hamra Street, one such individual speaks about the first time he executed a “regime agent” in the Talkalakh area, by slitting his throat.
He recalls holding the knife with both of his shaking hands, before grabbing the man’s hair. He goes into details of how he stepped on his back and pulled up his head before plunging the knife into his neck, as his friend shouted “Allahu Akbar.” He remembers the blade getting stuck in the man’s neck, but they eventually decapitated him.
He says that he could not sleep for three nights after that. The image of the slaughtered man, who was in his late forties, would haunt him whenever he closed his eyes. He explains how the experience broke a barrier for him, and that after the first time, it becomes something you can do again dispassionately.
So Syrian fighters have reached the capital, Beirut. This should not come as a surprise, given the way the presence of Syrian opposition activists in Lebanon has spread.
At first, they largely confined themselves to the border districts of Wadi Khaled, Ersal and al-Qaa. They had to maintain a low profile, and took precautions to keep their actions discreet, while being watched by Lebanese army intelligence. This only came to light after Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn spoke of al-Qaeda operating in the vicinity of Ersal, following the capture and subsequent escape there of a wanted militant leader identified as Hamza Q. Members of his group lured the troops who arrested him into a trap and forced them to free him.
Subsequently, the Syrian rebels’ presence began spreading to other parts of Lebanon, as the fighting in Syria intensified and most of the border villages on the Syrian side came under opposition control. They were provided with an unprecedented political embrace in the north, giving them access to the regional capital Tripoli. Their growing numbers there prompted some to call it the “City of the Syrian Revolution”, as local politicians provided them with protective cover, enabling them to move about armed “to protect themselves from Hezbollah”.
Security sources assert that a prominent Syrian opposition leader of the extreme Islamist persuasion was seen repeatedly travelling in a car bearing a Lebanese MP’s number plate, accompanied by a vehicle full of armed men. Commanders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are also known to travel under the protection of Lebanese political figures.
Despite the support already afforded to these groups, any restraint they observed in Lebanon ended with the incident involving the arrest of Shadi al-Mawlawi and his release under popular and political pressure. That signalled the start of a new phase for the Syrian opposition in Lebanon: one of “political immunity”, in which Lebanese security agencies would not be allowed to arrest any Syrian activists, no matter what their activities entailed.
That meant they could operate in other parts of the country too. The security cover they enjoyed in the north became widespread. The Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces turned a conspicuously blind eye to Syria-related political and even paramilitary activities, sparing its personnel this task. Political barriers had also restrained both the General Security Directorate and Army Intelligence on this front. Nobody in charge of these agencies dared detain any Syrian opposition activists because they lacked the political cover.
The message that got through was that most Syrian opposition activists know that their arrest is prohibited in the Land of the Cedars.
Nevertheless, says one of them, they still take precautions when doing some things, especially transporting weapons. “We know that our cell-phones and movements are being monitored by Hezbollah,” he explains. “We take that into account.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.