— A struggle is heating up between Lebanese factions supporting opposite sides in Syria’s civil war, alarming authorities in Beirut trying to keep their country out of the bloody fighting next door.
Lebanese backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opponents supporting the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels trying to oust him have stepped up their operations to out-maneuver each other in recent weeks.
Both sides in the Syrian civil war are anxious to keep support bases in Lebanon. The Assad government has been securing fuel, food and medical supplies with the aid of its Lebanese allies. The rebels have been using the country as a conduit for weapons and foreign fighters as well as a haven for wounded insurgents.
This month, the Syrian government started helping its Lebanese supporters in their efforts to disrupt pro-rebel logistical efforts in Lebanon by ordering up air strikes on cross-border smuggling routes used by the rebels.
The latest air strike came on April 10, when a Syrian government helicopter fired missiles on targets in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in two separate raids. One was near the Lebanon-Syria border and the other three kilometers northeast of Arsal, a Lebanese town serving as hub for the smuggling to the rebels.
Damascus had warned Beirut earlier this month it would attack suspected rebel sites in Lebanon if incursions from across the border didn’t stop.
Warning from Damascus
“Lebanon is a logistical base for both camps,” said Bassel Salloukh, a political scientist at Beirut’s Lebanese American University. “The worry is that when the battle for Damascus gets underway in earnest, Lebanon will turn from being a logistical base into a battlefield.”
Damascus is just over an hour’s drive from the Lebanese border.
Gun battles have periodically erupted in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between Alawite fighters in the Jabal al-Mohsen neighborhood, who back the Assad regime, and Sunni gunmen in the adjacent Bab al-Tabbaneh district, who support the Syrian uprising. The Syrian president comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Much of the logistical struggle in Lebanon, though, doesn’t involve gun battles, but consists of intelligence-based efforts mounted by both sides to hamper the transport of supplies into Syria.
Food and fuel targeted
Lebanese Sunnis supporting the rebels earmark food and fuel trucks, burning or looting them when spotted. They block roads leading into Syria being used by the trucks.
“We have the sheikhs, they decide when we should block roads and we go out put up obstacles, burn tires and cut the road when we know there are trucks full of fuel heading for Syria,” says Mohammad al-Ladan, an activist in Majdel Anjar, an overwhelmingly Sunni town on the highway linking Beirut and Damascus. “No fuel trucks have used the highway for a month now,” he adds.
Trucks carrying supplies other than fuel for the Assad regime are also being stopped. “Some of the activists loot the trucks and distribute the food and goods to Syrian refugees,” says Omar Abdul Rahman, an NGO worker in the nearby town of Bar Elias.
Publicly, Lebanese government officials are playing down much of the clandestine struggle. They don't want to highlight that while they are observing an official policy of neutrality in the Syrian civil war, other powerful forces within Lebanon don’t feel so constrained.
Open confrontations avoided
They are fearful too of intervening forcefully. Sources in Lebanon's security police say the worry is that such intervention could involve Lebanese government forces in confrontations that might escalate and provoke bigger firefights between pro and anti-Assad Lebanese.
Above all government forces are avoiding any confrontations with Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia militia movement that has backed Assad since the civil war began two years ago.
Hezbollah has intensified its patrolling on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border in the Bekaa and further north to try to disrupt the arms and supplies destined for the Syrian rebels. Hezbollah also is trying to prevent foreign fighters, including Lebanese Sunnis, from joining the rebel struggle against Assad.
“We are trying to contain problems, stop opposing sides from clashing physically and ensuring the public is not too affected,” says a senior Lebanese security police officer who asked not to be named. “But there is more activity and more danger.”
In Tripoli, the Lebanese government has cracked down strongly in the past when pro and anti-Assad Lebanese groups have clashed, worrying that those firefights clashes could quickly escalate.
But it isn’t just in Tripoli that the behind-the-scenes stealth war threatens to explode. In the northern Bekaa Valley, a series of tit-for-tat abductions connected with the logistical war is roiling Sunni-Shia relations in the Baalbek-Hermel region that includes the smuggling town of Arsal.
Pro-rebel Sunnis from the town of Arsal and members of the Jaaffar clan, who are Shia, have been engaged in retaliatory kidnappings since the end of last month.
Some local leaders in Arsal, who are critical of the Lebanese government for intervening, issued a statement recently blaming Lebanese security forces for the protracted instability in the area.
“[The] security bodies’ performance in ensuring the security of the people has been bad and will definitely lead to strife…What these security bodies are doing is managing a security crisis instead of sticking to their primary role which is to strike all violators with an iron fist,” the statement said.