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On Syrian border, artillery thumps in shadows of medieval castle

Syrian rebel fighters have taken refuge in an old crusader castle and villages on the Lebanese side of the border, drawing Syrian Army fire.

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On July 16, Adnan Mansour, the Lebanese foreign minister, played down the impact of cross-border breaches by Syrian military forces, saying “the incursions have involuntarily led to the fall of victims, but we cannot consider them as violations.”

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Syria has blamed the violence on the presence of FSA militants in north Lebanon using the area as a springboard for cross-border attacks against regime forces.

“When border guards are targeted or Syrian territories are targeted by fire from the Lebanese side, then the solution should come through coordination between the two countries,” said Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, in early July.

This pocket of north Lebanon, although predominantly Sunni, also includes Christian and Alawite-populated villages. Many of their residents sympathize with the Syrian regime, or at least hold less favorable views of the armed Syrian opposition than local Sunnis.

“All the shelling here is because people fire from Lebanon at the Syrians and then the Syrians shell back,” says Edmond Elias, the mayor of Menjez, three miles east of Nourat al-Tahta, blaming the presence of “extremists” in neighboring Sunni villages.

The Lebanese army is presently redeploying troops from elsewhere in the country to the northern border in an effort to contain the security problems. The Lebanese army command said in a statement last week that the mission included clamping down on the cross-border infiltrations and arms smuggling operations and that troops would immediately respond to sources of fire “whichever side they may come from.”

Still, the operational choices facing the Lebanese army are bleak. Few Lebanese expect the army to stage counter-bombardments of Syrian artillery batteries that shell Lebanese territory. On the other hand, pursuing and arresting FSA militants sheltering on Lebanese soil will further worsen already tense relations with Lebanese Sunnis in the north who broadly back the uprising against the Assad regime and willingly cooperate with the armed Syrian opposition.

Waging war by night

Local Sunni residents along the border are coy about the presence of FSA militants in their villages. But as the setting sun turns the sky to the west of Nourat al-Tahta a deep crimson gold and residents climb into their cars to escape the coming night’s artillery shelling, the FSA men make their appearance. At Ahmad’s home, AK-47 rifles are brought out of hiding and walkie-talkies are switched on, tuned in to the frequencies used by the FSA or those of the regular Syrian army across the border.  

“Sometimes, we can have conversations with the officers in the Syrian army,” says Khaled, a member of the FSA’s Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade. “The other day, the officer swore at us and said he would destroy Nourat al-Tahta. We said ‘go ahead and try.’ They really hammered us that night,” he adds with a chuckle.

By 8 p.m., the village is almost completely deserted. The inky night sky is scattered with a wash of silver stars and the only sounds are cicadas in the trees and the hum of a distant generator. The first sound of shellfire comes minutes later, a distant barely audible thump from somewhere inside Syria.

Ahmad, the FSA men and Syrian refugees sit outside the front door chain smoking and sipping endless glasses of hot sweet tea and thick Turkish coffee. They amuse themselves by playing a clip on a cell phone showing one of their colleagues in the Tel Kalakh’s Martyrs’ Brigade pretending to be a street beggar, his hand outstretched not for money but for bullets. His obliging comrades wander past dropping a few rounds into his hand and are rewarded with extravagant gratitude from the “beggar.” Despite the deliberate humor, the video clip illustrates the FSA's pressing need to maintain a steady source of weapons and ammunition to pursue their struggle.

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