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A border erased

Lebanese army unable to keep northern towns free from conflict

by Nicholas Blanford

The deterioration of security along Lebanon’s northern border from Arida on the Mediterranean to Masharih Al Qaa in the east presents the Lebanese army with an insurmountable challenge. The western half of the border, particularly a cluster of mainly Sunni villages between Abboudiyah and Dabbabiyah, has come under regular Syrian army shellfire since last summer. These villages are supportive of the Syrian opposition.

Some stretches of the border have become de facto safe havens for Syrian rebels who use the area to rest and to plan and launch infiltrations of Syrian territory. The Syrian army shelling, which occurs mostly at night, is intended to interdict infiltrating rebel forces as well as collectively punish the local Lebanese for supporting the opposition.

On the eastern half of the northern border, in the Shia areas running from the frontier village of Qasr to Hermel, 10 kilometers to the south, the local population has come under rocket fire from Syrian rebels. The rebel forces are incensed at the presence of Hezbollah combatants who are fighting alongside regular Syrian troops in a cluster of villages, many of them populated by Lebanese Shias, west and south of the rebel-held town of Qusayr. The Syrian rebels fired for the first time into Lebanese territory in mid-February when two rockets struck Qasr but failed to explode.

An intensification of fighting in the Qusayr pocket in April, however, led to repeated rocket attacks. On April 14, two people, one of them a teenager, were killed when rockets hit Qasr and nearby Hawsh Sayyed Ali. After that fatal incident, the Lebanese army said that units were “deployed widely across the area and took measures in the field necessary to protect people and to respond to the source of the attack as appropriate.”

If there was any deployment, it did not last long. A visit to the Hermel and Qasr area five days later revealed that not one on-duty soldier could be seen north of a temporary checkpoint set up beside the Assi river on the southern outskirts of Hermel, a full 10 kilometers south of the border. Even that checkpoint was only set up during a recent kidnapping crisis between members of the Jaafar clan and residents of Arsal.

It is unclear what “measures” the army could take to “protect people and respond to the source of the attack.” Even if the army had artillery positions in the area and counter-battery radar to determine the origin of rebel rocket fire, it would not have the political latitude to undertake offensive operations into Syrian soil. It could shell rebel rocket positions in the Qusayr pocket, but the army would be opening itself up to criticism for not taking the same action against Syrian army artillery batteries that shell northern Akkar.

However, the army has taken the initiative in Akkar of erecting several fortified observation towers. The towers, which have been constructed in Menjez, Chadra and Moqaible, are fitted with sophisticated monitoring devices, allowing the army to gaze deep into Syria. The purpose of the towers is a demonstration of the state’s presence in the troubled district and to allow for more accurate reporting of developments. But they have failed so far to stem the Syrian bombardments of Akkar. Furthermore, there is no intention to construct similar observation towers along the eastern half of the border in the northern Bekaa, which may be attributed to objections from Hezbollah, the dominant force in the area.

There is a certain inevitability about the worsening security situation along the northern border, exacerbated by the palpable sectarian dimensions of the conflict. Hezbollah increasingly appears to view the war in Syria as an existential battle and as such is committing ever more resources to ensure the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or at least the preservation of the pan-regional “axis of resistance”. By the same token, Levantine Sunnis stretching to Iraq are inspired by the notion of Damascus being wrested from the Alawites and dealing a blow to Iran and Hezbollah.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Lebanese army — and by extension the Lebanese state — can do little but watch from the sidelines as the sectarian conflict in Syria gathers strength and seeps ever deeper into Lebanon.

Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London

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