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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.

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Further east along the border, on the other side of 6,500-foot forested mountains that last week were lashed by torrential rain and capped in snow, lies the stony flatlands of the Shiite-populated northern Bekaa Valley, an area of strong support for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime.

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On a recent afternoon, the steady crump of artillery explosions and the sharp pop of outgoing mortar rounds just inside Syria reverberated through the border town of Qasr as Hezbollah vehicles – SUVs with tinted windows and no license plates – raced through the narrow potholed streets of the town.

Some 25 small villages populated by Lebanese Shiites lie just across the border from Qasr, in Syria. They have been the focus of repeated clashes in recent months, pitting the FSA against Syrian troops allegedly backed by Hezbollah militants.

The fighting is expected to grow more intense in the coming days because the FSA’s Omar al-Farouq brigade, one of the largest and most successful Syrian rebel units, has redeployed much of its manpower from the border area opposite north Lebanon to Damascus, according to Syrian opposition sources. Lebanese and Syrian FSA militants, who had been resting in the Bekaa, are said to be heading into Syria to reinforce the rebels’ depleted ranks.

The residents of Qasr believe that the Syrian rebels are seeking to empty the Shiite villages just over the border to create a corridor linking Sunni areas to facilitate movement across the top of north Lebanon.

“Those villages won’t go down easily. They will defend them to the last bullet. They are willing to fight to the end,” Abu Ali, a member of Qasr’s municipality, says.

The residents tell lurid tales of atrocities committed by the rebels whom they accuse of being Islamic extremists and many of whom they say are not even Syrians.

“There is no Free Syrian Army, they are all Salafists who are attacking us and robbing our homes,” says Minjad al-Haq, a resident of Safsafah, one of the Shiite villages inside Syria who moved across the border in September to escape the fighting. “They are decapitating their prisoners. They say Allahu Akhbar three times then cut off their heads.”

The emergence and growth of radical Islamist groups in Syria – such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was recently proscribed by the US as a terrorist organization – and indications of Sunni radicalization in Lebanon have unnerved Lebanese Shiites who worry they could be targeted by triumphant Sunnis once the Assad regime falls. Some of those Sunni militants exist in the northeast corner of the Bekaa Valley, which has become a safe haven for the FSA and a conduit for militants to slip into Syria. All that separates Hezbollah and its Shiite supporters in the northwest pocket of the Bekaa from their Sunni FSA enemies in the northeast corner of the valley is a no-man's land of flat, stony earth.

Although Hezbollah has fought the FSA just north of the border inside Syria, a tense calm exists south of the frontier.

“The Shiites in Syria are in a defensive mode and the Sunnis are in attack mode,” says Abu Ali. “But if the Sunnis attack us here [inside Lebanon] we will attack them here.”

But the sense that the Assad regime’s days are numbered is emboldening some Sunnis to cast their mind toward the next conflict.

Khaled, a portly Lebanese Salafist from the Bekaa Valley who has fought with the FSA for 18 months, predicted that the Assad regime would collapse within eight weeks.

“When we are done there, we will come after Hezbollah here,” he says. “We are going to finish them completely. The Free Syrian Army will come and clean Lebanon of Hezbollah then leave, just like we helped them clean Syria of Assad.”

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