Dodging Syrian Shells in Lebanon Stokes Fear of Broader Conflict
Mustapha Hassan, a farmer in the Lebanese village of Noura al-Tahta next to the border with Syria, is not willing to risk his life for his crops.
The 35-year-old father of four usually plants okra, beans and other vegetables. This year, shells from Syria have been hitting the village since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime turned violent.
“We live in fear,” Hassan said by telephone from his home in the village, where one man was killed. “We worry about our children, families and livelihood.”
Clashes between the Syrian army and rebels in their 18- month-old battle have included the shelling of Sunni Muslim villages in Lebanon the Assad government suspects of harboring Sunni rebels. Syrian warplanes launched an air raid last month on the outskirts of the north-eastern town of Ersal, though without causing any casualties.
The border disturbances are on top of intermittent flare- ups between Assad’s Lebanese Shiite and Alawite supporters and Sunni opponents. Lebanon’s main political forces, including Hezbollah, have sought to prevent the tensions from spreading, though that’s not enough to remove the threat of an escalation in sectarian violence, said James Petretta, principal analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultant.
“Lebanon remains prone to risk, no matter how good the intentions of the population and some of its politicians,” Petretta said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Assad has no interest in preventing violence from spreading to Lebanon, even as his ability to do so is already seriously eroded.”
Lebanon is unwilling to do more because of the alliance between Assad’s regime and Hezbollah, the only group that has refused to disarm since the end of the Lebanese civil war, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
There’s also the fear that any misstep might plunge the fractious Mediterranean nation into conflict, he said.
“The government doesn’t want to make a big deal of the violations because it doesn’t want a confrontation with the Syrian regime or any further escalation on the Syrian-Lebanese border,” Salem said in an interview.
Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up roughly a third of the Lebanese population and the country fought its own sectarian civil war from 1975 to 1990.
More recent tension between Sunnis and Shiites goes back to 2005, when former Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by a bomb four months after leaving office. The prosecutor in an international tribunal issued arrest warrants for four members of the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah in June 2011 for the Hariri attack.
It also led to the withdrawal of the Syrian troops who had occupied Lebanon toward the end of the civil war following widespread anti-Syrian protests after Hariri’s death.
Currently, 370 kilometers (230 miles), or 90 percent, of the 413 kilometer-border between Lebanon and Syria is not properly delineated and the Syrian army has apologized on three occasions for incursions, according to Lebanese premier Najib Mikati, an ally of Assad who took office for a second time in 2011 after replacing Hariri’s son, Saad.
“We told them such mistakes shouldn’t be made and we don’t accept any attacks on our borders, we don’t accept any attacks on our people,” Mikati said in an interview with Al Arabiya television in New York on Sept. 26.
A few hours before he spoke, a resident of the eastern village of Haam was killed and his brother injured by Syrian fire, the official National News Agency said. A day later, the agency reported that a Syrian military unit entered Lebanon’s al-Qaa village in the eastern Bekaa region and destroyed the home of a local man. The incident was followed by heavy machine gun fire from the Syrian side, it said.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi couldn’t be reached for comment at his office in Damascus.
UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly, who visited the border area near the eastern Bekaa Valley on Sept. 27, voiced concern over the “impact of cross-border fighting and incursions, from whatever source,” his office said in a statement that day. “The United Nations has repeatedly underlined the importance of respect for Lebanon’s borders.”
Hassan, the farmer, believes the shelling of his predominantly Sunni village is intentional.
He said Syrians released from jail told the villagers that Assad’s authorities believe they are protecting Sunni rebels, a charge Hassan denies. The Assad government hasn’t commented on the border disturbances on its official news agency.
The Syrian government regularly reports foiled infiltration attempts from Lebanon and clashes with rebels. Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jafari, has accused “political sides” in Lebanon of smuggling arms into his country.
Lebanese army units were deployed along the border, increasing their patrols. Prime Minister Mikati said his government will abandon its policy of disassociating itself from the Syrian conflict when Lebanon’s security is at stake and shells are falling on Lebanese territory.
“The Lebanese scene is very fragile and is easily affected by any foreign development,” Mikati said in New York last month, according to the official National News Agency. “It is common knowledge that Lebanon is divided between those who support the Syrian revolution and those who oppose it. We are trying to distance ourselves from the negative ramifications.”
Back in his village, Hassan said he didn’t want the Lebanese army to get sucked into a war with Syria.
He said the border disturbances have forced some shepherds in the village of 2,500 people to sell their cows and sheep and move to safer towns. Those who cannot afford to leave have turned neighborhood cellars where cattle are kept into shelters from the shells, he said. Socializing ends at sunset, when violence across the border usually starts.
Locals are waiting for the war to end to resume normality in their village, said Hassan. “We will not get any rest until the Syrian regime goes,” he said.
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