Damascus & Beirut – Syria has massed thousands of troops along its border with northern Lebanon in what officials in Beirut fear is a prelude to the first incursion since Syrian forces pulled out three years ago.
Although Damascus insists that its forces are conducting an anti smuggling operation, the Lebanese Government is eyeing the moves with unease, believing that the unusual scale of the deployment has more to do with tensions between the two countries over recent sectarian clashes in northern Lebanon.
“People around here are worried. We don’t know why the Syrians have arrived like this,” said Ali, 18, a farmer in the tiny hillside hamlet of Hekr Janin overlooking the border.
Much of Lebanon’s northern border with Syria follows the Kabir, or Great river, which despite its name, is little more than a trickle after the hot summer months. Lined by trees and bamboo thickets, the river meanders through a narrow floodplain of meadows and crop fields flanked by steep hills of black basalt.
The Lebanese media report that between 8,000 and 10,000 Syrian special forces have taken up positions along some of the hills overlooking the Kabir.
Their surprise deployment comes after several months of clashes in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, pitting the majority Sunnis against the minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The small Alawite community in Lebanon is a close ally of the Syrian regime. President Assad of Syria is an Alawite and most top positions in the Syrian security and military apparatus are filled by them.
Much of northern Lebanon is populated by Sunnis, the majority of whom are supporters of the Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination is widely blamed on Syria.
Last month Mr Assad said that he had warned his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman, of the “problem of extremism” — a reference to Islamic militants, who he said were responsible for destabilising northern Lebanon. He said that he had urged Mr Suleiman to dispatch Lebanese troops to confront the extremists.
Mr Assad has also likened the situation between Syria and Lebanon to that of Russia and Georgia. His comments sparked speculation in Beirut that Damascus could be contemplating a military incursion into northern Lebanon to protect the Alawite community from the Sunni militants.
Assad warns of extremism. Funny, last year I was in Beirut when Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni jihadist group started shooting at the Lebanese Army. The interesting part, their leader, Shaker al-Absi was a prisoner in Syria, before crossing into Lebanon to lead the intifada. Syria LET HIM GO. Now they complain about extremism.
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