Nasri Khoury, the long-serving head of the Lebanese-Syrian Higher Council, may have been a tad hasty in stating last month that the Syrian army “has not made any incursions onto Lebanese territory” and that the town of Arsal in the eastern Bekaa might in fact be in Syria rather than Lebanon.
First of all, despite the declared withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April 2005, there remains a large number of Syrian troops in the hills south of Deir Al Ashayer and east of Kfar Qouk in the district of Western Bekaa. The locations of these Syrian military positions are clearly visible on Google Earth. The United Nations team charged with confirming the withdrawal of Syrian troops noted in its May 2005 report that there was a discrepancy over the delineation of the Lebanon-Syria border south of Deir Al Ashayer.
“As a result, the team was unable to verify whether the Syrian military unit in the Deir Al Ashayer area was in Syrian or Lebanese territory,” the report concluded.
Days before the UN issued its report, I was invited by a congenial Syrian officer onto the battalion-sized army base at Deir Al Ashayer to examine his military map to prove his contention that the location was inside Syria. According to his map we were indeed some 150 meters inside Syrian territory.
But Lebanese army maps, standard international maps of Lebanon and the claims of Deir Al Ashayer’s residents placed the officer and his men approximately one kilometer inside Lebanon. The issue has never been resolved between Beirut and Damascus, so the Syrian troops remain billeted in the hills between Deir Al Ashayer and Kfar Qouk and Lebanese army checkpoints prevent anyone going too close to the area.
Khoury’s other contention — that Arsal lies inside Syria — is manifestly incorrect. Arsal lies approximately 15 kilometers west of the border. The border in this remote tract of the frontier is supposed to follow the watershed of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. However, the border east of Arsal has long been a zone of confrontation between Lebanese and Syrian farmers, the latter having encroached onto Lebanese territory to grow orchards of apricots and almonds on the barren western slopes of the mountains.
In early October, Syrian troops probed up to five kilometers into Lebanese territory east of Arsal, according to local residents. One Syrian was killed and a building attacked during the cross-border forays. On a recent trip to Arsal, I could go no further east than the isolated farmsteads five kilometers short of the border because local residents said it was too dangerous due to the Syrian soldiers in the area.
The residents believe that the incursions are due to Syrian concerns that arms are being smuggled from Lebanon through the rugged mountains into Syria. Certainly, the Sunni residents of Arsal do not disguise their hostility toward the regime of Bashar al-Assad and support for the opposition protest movement. Furthermore, smuggling is a way of life for Arsal, like many other villages along the eastern border. But smuggling goods — be it diesel, cement or weapons — across this section of the border is only really possible with the cooperation of both Lebanese and Syrian parties. The barren nature of the terrain east of Arsal and the long distances involved (unlike the northern border where a 10-second stroll through the ankle-deep water of the Kabir River takes you from one country to the other) would make smuggling hazardous if Syria chose to seal the border and deploy troops.
The crackdown by Syrian security forces in mid-October in the area south of Homs, 30 kilometers north of the border with Lebanon, gave rise to further reports of cross-border incursions, this time in the Qaa Projects near the Qaa-Jusiyah frontier crossing, a Sunni-populated area where sympathies for the Syrian opposition run deep.
Anecdotally at least, arms smuggling from Lebanon to Syria is increasing, although it still appears to be on an individual basis rather than a more organized transfer of arms. The bulk of the smuggling occurs in Sunni-populated areas along the border, the north in particular. The escalating arms smuggling and the porosity of an ill-defined border suggest that Syrian army incursions into Lebanon will continue as the uprising in Syria intensifies and grows more violent.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London. His book “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel” was published by Random House in October