Syrio-Lebanese Border: Clandestine Turf Wars

A Lebanese man sporting a tattoo that reads "out of law" walks across an unofficial road used for trafficking between the northern Lebanese border village of Kuneissat and Syria in Wadi Khaled area, on 27 June 2011, as Syrian activists say that recent violence near the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs forced hundreds of people to flee over the border into Lebanon. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Afif Diab

Published Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The rugged mountains and valleys of Lebanon’s Bekaa — the tense border region with Syria — is now a front line for Lebanese groups supporting Syrians against Bashar Assad’s regime.

Kemal emerges from an apricot grove that straddles the border in the regions of Qaa in Lebanon and Jowse in Syria. He greets us shyly and with great caution. He steps back a little and speaks by walkie-talkie with someone who appears to be charged with the task of monitoring nearby Syrian military stations. Brother Asfour is his codename among the Lebanese group that is spread along the border with Syria, from Arsal in the East through Qaa to Dawra, extending to the other side of the border, where a Syrian group takes over.

These Lebanese and Syrians are cooperating to bring down the Baath regime in Damascus. The Syrians are in desperate need of a means of communication, as well as transportation and treatment for their wounded. The Lebanese have found a suitable means of communication in handheld radios, despite sometimes being subject to Syrian disruption. Hundreds of units have been distributed to trustworthy Lebanese and Syrians residing along the border. The joint organization limits its activities to helping the wounded and securing the safe passage of defectors from the Syrian military into Lebanon. The Syrian army has become aware of these operations and has begun to carry out security raids on Lebanese soil.

Kemal is nothing more than one of many young Lebanese men working within a group whose assistance to the Syrians is a political action before a humanitarian one. He says that plainly. He talks a lot about the Syrian regime, and finds nothing positive to say. He’s unable to follow through on his promise to arrange a rendezvous with officers that he says have defected from the Syrian army and reached Lebanon. They cancelled at the last moment due to security considerations, preferring a date safer for them and their Lebanese supporters, who live in fear of Lebanese security and the Syrian military raids that strike day or night.

What is taking place along the Lebanese-Syrian border in the North and East of the Bekaa can only be described as a clandestine war, fought under the cover of darkness in this rugged region for more than three months. It continues to escalate alongside the increasingly intense military operations within Syria. The Syrian raids on farms and villages occupied by Lebanese, Syrians, and Bedouins in Qaa and Arsal during the past days are not the first of their kind. Residents of the border areas confirmed the Syrian army’s incursions in their conversations with us. These attacks have been largely ignored by the media. The area’s Lebanese and Syrian citizens express great fear and anxiety, while the Lebanese military and security personnel do not find anything alarming about these operations.

Some Lebanese guards admit to occasionally helping coordinate between the two sides during these raids, and some reveal to al-Akhbar that Lebanese security organizations are not in agreement on how to address what is taking place along the border. They explain that many look the other way while others apprehend and deliver Syrian defectors to the regime or send them back where they came from. They add that more than 90 wounded Syrian civilians and military personnel illegally crossed into the Bekaa during the past days and that there is a group of Lebanese doctors and nurses currently tending to them.

Some Lebanese citizens have converted their homes into operating rooms for injured Syrians who fled to Lebanon in order to avoid arrest. They say that what is taking place along the border in the Bekaa and the north is not a simple matter, and that the Syrian regime is following the situation closely. Therefore, the Syrian army has begun carrying out rapid though limited security operations inside Lebanon, which Lebanese authorities are also “closely monitoring.” They refuse to confirm what has been said about a Syrian decision to carry out a large-scale military operation in the Lebanese border regions, saying that “everything is possible, but we do not believe that the Syrian army is currently capable of that.” They add that the Syrian army “might sometimes carry out limited operations in order to pursue defectors or smugglers.”

The secret war taking place along the border with Syria has expanded into an open military incursion. A Syrian security raid entered the farms of Dawra (which is divided by an irrigation ditch running from Syria comprising the ‘natural border’ between the two countries) and searched the majority of its homes, resulting in at least one death and several injuries. One person was detained and brought back to Syria. This event has caused a panic among the residents who now leave the farm at night and return during the day for fear of another similar raid. Khalid S., who carries a handheld radio, says that the Syrian army entered Dawra looking for renegades and smugglers, searching houses and letting off random gunfire. He explained that the Lebanese army had arrived at the entrance of Dawra but did not enter until the Syrian army had left.

What is happening there is not an uncommon occurrence. The Syrian army’s entrance into Dawra in the Qaa plain was preceded and followed by incursions into homes spread out near the regions of Jowse and Kharaib Jowse. Similar activities were also reported inside the Lebanese orchards and vineyards near Nizariya, Salihiya, and Houch Sayyid Ali. Some Lebanese citizens say that the Syrian army has been raiding their homes at night in search of Syrian citizens on a purported list. Abu Hussein Arsali (not his real name) says that the Syrians gave these lists to the Lebanese army, demanding that these individuals be stopped and delivered to Syrian authorities once captured. Arsali also revealed that there are Lebanese groups organizing border crossing operations for Syrians, especially the wounded, adding that there is a ‘cell’ working to provide assistance. He calls the operations “a humanitarian issue — not a political one — and the Lebanese authorities are informed about our actions.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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