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Lebanese border means little in Syria's civil war

With Sunni villages sheltering Syrian rebel fighters and Shiite villages shipping Hezbollah fighters across the border, northern Lebanon is now just another frontline in Syria's war.

By Correspondent / December 24, 2012

Vehicles line up at the Syria-Lebanon border last week; as violence begins to spill out of Syria to both sides of the border, more people are trying to escape into Lebanon.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters

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NOURAT AL-TAHTA, north Lebanon

The four rain-filled bomb craters all visible within 100 yards of Mahmoud Ismael’s house starkly illustrate how Lebanon’s northern border has become an active frontline in Syria’s civil war, drawing in rival Lebanese Shiite and Sunni factions.

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A fifth shell had struck the edge of the roof, knocking out chunks of concrete and sending heavy steel shrapnel scything into the cement parapet and the soft earth below.

“It was a terrifying night. We all thought we would be killed,” says Mr. Ismael, surveying the damage.

The Lebanese government, which follows a policy of neutrality towards the war in Syria, has found itself almost powerless to prevent pockets of north Lebanon becoming either bastions of support for the Syrian regime or de facto safe havens for the armed Syrian opposition.

Tensions between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities have been running high for several years. But they have been aggravated further by the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria, which has pitted the majority Sunni opposition against the Alawite minority, a subsect of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Nourat al-Tahta, like other Sunni-populated villages along the border in the northern Akkar province, is deeply supportive of the Syrian revolution and shelters refugees and Free Syrian Army militants alike. The villages in the area have been subjected to Syrian artillery shelling on a near nightly basis since May. The shelling is intended to hit FSA members who slip across the border into Syria at night as well as to punish those Lebanese who provide assistance and a safe haven for the militants. 

Until recently, it was confined mainly to the scrubland outside the village, but in the past week, the bombardments have focused more closely on inhabited areas.

“If it carries on like this we will have to leave,” Ismael says.

According to a Lebanese member of the FSA who lives in the area, Nourat al-Tahta was the starting point three weeks ago for 20 Lebanese Sunni volunteers who set out to cross the border and join a rebel group. The volunteers fell into an ambush on the Syrian side of the border and 14 of them were killed, according to the militant. The shelling, he said, was the Syrian regime’s punishment on the village.

The Syrian shelling and clandestine FSA activities underline how little state control exists in the northern Akkar. The Lebanese Army has sent some additional reinforcements to the border, but its ability to contain the violence is limited. Returning artillery fire into Syria is politically impossible for the Lebanese army, while chasing after FSA militants operating in Lebanon risks incurring the anger of local Lebanese Sunnis.

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