Tensions mount on Syria-Lebanon border

February 4, 2012
4/2/2012 .

WADI KHALED, Lebanon–Lush mountains melt into the valley separating Syria from Lebanon, a haven for smugglers and more recently an underground railroad for Syrians fleeing their country's army.

Thousands of Syrians are scratching out an existence on the other side of the 200-mile border with Lebanon after escaping a year-long military assault by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Thousands of Syrians have been killed in Assad's attempt to crush what began as a peaceful protest movement against his dictatorship.
"I am coming to wonder, is it worth dying a slow death in Lebanon under relative house arrest, or is it better to go back to Syria to die a quick death for the cause?" asks Wael Samad, a Syrian refugee.
As refugees here ponder their future, the international community has for the first time offered to help Syria's anti-Assad rebels fight back. Wealthy Gulf oil states promised at a conference in Istanbul to give as much as $100 million to pay the salaries of the Free Syrian Army. The United States said it will give vital communication equipment to the rebels.
The promises stop short of the military assistance the rebels have been pleading for, but it is a start, they say.
"While some of the details may still be missing, we are happy to finally see some positive international will to invest politically and militarily in the Syrian opposition," said Yasser Tabarra, a member of the Syrian National Council.
Though Assad said Monday that he would accept a cease-fire, the shelling of Syrian cities continued, making return unlikely for many Syrians in northern Lebanon. At one of the seven villages in the region of Wadi Khaled, Lebanese soldiers stand guard at a military outpost.
The Lebanese army presence is relatively new in an area long neglected by the government. In the first months of the Syrian uprising, smugglers roamed freely here, crisscrossing the many dirt roads linking the two countries. Now the trade in fuel and car pieces is slowly being replaced by injured protesters, activists or regular Syrians fleeing the violence in their own country.
No longer able to freely run their smuggling businesses, the natives resent the army's presence. "I had 12 cars running to and from the borders," smuggler Rateb Ali says. "It is more difficult to cross into Lebanon now because of the increased monitoring as well as the planting of mines on the borders."
Syria has pressured Lebanon to look into reports that the border area is shielding members of the Free Syria Army, a loose collection of former Syrian army officers and troops who have switched to the rebel side.
For many years, Lebanon was under virtual occupation by Syria after President Hafez Assad, father of Bashar, positioned thousands of his troops in the country. Bashar Assad withdrew the troops in 2005 under pressure from the United States and Europe.
But Syria still wields influence in Lebanon. The United States has accused Syrian intelligence of arming Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group that dominates the Lebanese parliament and has been designated a terror organization by the U.S. State Department.
The United Nations has accused Syria of involvement in the assassinations of anti-Syria politicians in Lebanon.
In November, the Syrian army laced the Lebanese border with landmines. Many people fleeing the violence have been seriously wounded in the past few months, according to Human Rights Watch.
"The border regions have been a vital conduit for transporting injured Syrians, amounting to over 450 people to date, of whom about 100 are still under medical care," says Nabil Halabi of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
Once they get to Lebanon, the estimated 20,000 Syrian refugees find living conditions to be poor or even dangerous, he says.
"There is a growing mistrust between the local population, the Lebanese government and various political factions. We have seen several kidnapping attempts of injured Syrians as well as the disappearance of opposition figures," Halabi says.
Khaled Daher, a member of Lebanon's parliament from the border region, accuses his country's army of colluding with Syria to extend Assad's crackdown into Lebanon.
He says the Lebanese army is "keeping silent" about Syrian incursions that have killed several people. Last week, Syrian troops fired rocket-propelled grenades across the border, he says.
"The legal borders are now blocked for people coming from sensitive areas such as rebel stronghold Baba Amro. People have to resort to illegal crossings and landmines," says Sheik Abdel Rahman Akari, a Syrian in Lebanon.
Halabi says the refugees are banned from moving about the country for better housing and jobs.
Despite the border, many in Syria and Lebanon consider themselves brothers.
"We were one family — us and our Syrian brethren. Most of us hail from the same tribes, and we will protect them against any danger," says Abu Hamad of Lebanon. 

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