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Is Lebanon becoming Syria's Western front?

With Syrian rebels sheltering in Lebanese border towns and Syrian Army troops planting land mines on both sides of the border, Lebanese fears of getting dragged into the conflict are rising. 

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In Nourat al-Tahta, a small, hardscrabble village less than a mile from the border, the strain of enduring nightly shelling is beginning to take effect.

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"We are very worried that the Syrians will cross the border and invade the village," says Abu Hussein, a farmer who is hosting a number of Syrian refugees and FSA militants in his small house. "Some farmers are selling their livestock and moving out of the village because they are so worried about the Syrian soldiers coming here." 

One burly, bearded member of the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade, an FSA unit from the eponymous town two miles north of the Lebanese border, says his job is to smuggle weapons into Syria, a task that has grown even more hazardous since Syrian troops began lacing both sides of the border with land mines to catch infiltrators.

It's unclear if the Lebanese authorities are aware of this recent and seemingly localized development of land mines on its territory, but the issue is unlikely to be addressed either way due to the dangers in approaching this section of the border.

He recalls a trip he and eight other men made days earlier, crossing the Kabir River, which marks the border, laden with backpacks filled with rifles and ammunition.

“I and one comrade had crossed the river when we heard an explosion behind us on the Lebanese side. Two of the guys had tripped a land mine and lost a leg each,” he says.

The FSA fighters say that they are seeking ever more sophisticated weapons to confront the Syrian Army, which has the advantage of air power and artillery.

“We are negotiating the purchase of a Strella for $9,000,” says Mohammed Layla, a Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade unit commander, referring to the SAM-7 anti-aircraft missile available on the Lebanese black market. They are also attempting to purchase a multiple rocket launcher and 16 107mm rockets.

“They are asking $70,000, but we are telling them it’s too much,” Mr. Layla says.

The Lebanese Army has reinforced its presence in the northern border area, but there is little more it can do. Returning fire at Syrian Army positions is politically out of the question. But chasing and detaining FSA militants in Lebanon will simply incur further anger from Lebanese Sunnis who support the Syrian opposition and already distrust the Army.

If elements from UNIFIL or fresh UN forces were deployed to the northern border to support the Army, they, too, would face the same constraints, analysts say. They could also find themselves once more in the jihadist firing line. 

The threat posed by Lebanon-based Al-Qaeda-inspired factions toward UNIFIL seems to have dissipated lately. UNIFIL has suffered several bomb attacks since 2006 by suspected jihadist factions, but now the desire to attack UNIFIL appears to have been overshadowed by the call to jihad in Syria, which is drawing Sunni Islamist militants from across the region into an epic struggle against the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus and its Shiite allies in Iran and Lebanon.

Sheikh Omar Bakri, the Salafist cleric from Tripoli, last week said that an “Islamic Spring” was under way in the region.

“The Sunni giant has awakened and the Caliphate State will soon see the light,” he told Lebanon's Al-Liwa newspaper.


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