A recent escalation in cross-border shootings and tit-for-tat kidnappings along Lebanon’s northern frontier with Syria is fueling concerns that the yearlong violence in Syria is spilling into Lebanon.
In the past week alone, several people, including an old woman, have been shot dead allegedly by Syrian soldiers firing into Lebanon; clashes have resumed between rival factions in Lebanon’s perennially tense second-largest city, Tripoli, leaving four people dead; and some 40 Sunni Syrians have been kidnapped in reprisal for the abduction of three Lebanese Shiites.
The Lebanese government, which is backed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has adopted a policy of disassociation with the crisis in neighboring Syria, mindful that Lebanon is deeply polarized between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime. But Sunni residents of villages strung along the northern border with Syria accuse the Lebanese government and security services of either failing to block Syrian transgressions or actively colluding with the Syrian regime in some of the abductions.
“Any person who is wanted by the Syrians is easily picked up because the Lebanese authorities are working with the Syrian security,” says Ali, a 22 year-old resident of the border village of Abboudiyah. Like others interviewed here, Ali requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Last Thursday evening, Mahmoud Ibrahim, a father of four children, was kidnapped from Abboudiyah allegedly by four members of the pro-Syrian regime Shabiha militia and taken across the border into Syria.
According to residents and eyewitnesses, Mr. Ibrahim had been contacted by some Syrian friends who had asked him to meet them at the official border crossing at the northern end of the village. When he arrived beside the customs post, four Shabiha militiamen entered Lebanese territory and used an electric stun gun to subdue Ibrahim before dragging him back across the border.
The angry residents of Abboudiyah, almost all of them supporters of the Syrian opposition, temporarily blockaded the international road leading to Syria.
“The Lebanese authorities asked us to give them four days to secure Mahmoud’s release,” says a close relative of Ibrahim's. “We are building our hopes on that. Otherwise, we will cut the international road and no one will come in or out of Syria. Then we will think of the next step.”
Border watched more closely
The international highway is little more than a narrow, dusty potholed lane passing through Abboudiyah, which sits on the southern bank of the Kabir River, the frontier between Lebanon and Syria. The road is choked with parked trucks waiting to cross into Syria. The Syrian customs officers are being more thorough than usual to ensure that none of the vehicles entering Syria are carrying weapons and ammunition for the armed opposition.
The kidnapping of Ibrahim is not the first such security incident in Abboudiyah, locals say. Two weeks ago, Adnan Mohammed, a cousin of Ibrahim's, was snatched while walking on the southern bank of the river. No news has been heard about him. Five days ago, Shabiha militiamen crossed the border again and opened fire on a house belonging to Saleh Mansour, according to local residents.
“The Syrians tried luring him to the border crossing like they did Mahmoud, but Saleh didn’t fall for the trick,” says Ibrahim’s relative.
Villager: 'We are all targets'
What remains unclear is why the Syrians would want to kidnap anyone from Abboudiyah. The residents claimed that the village was well known for supporting the Syrian opposition and that made them potential targets for the Syrian regime.
“We are all targets here. Mahmoud in particular was known for bad-mouthing Assad,” says Haitham, who was sitting in a barbershop with some friends.
The Syrian authorities have accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding and arming the Free Syrian Army, the main military opposition force in Syria. Two weeks ago, the Lebanese Navy intercepted a ship off the Lebanese coast carrying 150 tons of weapons, including US-made TOW anti-tank missiles. The ship, which had sailed from Libya, was due to dock in Tripoli from where the arms were to be smuggled into Syria.
Kidnappings are not limited to the Abboudiyah area, however. Farther east along the border in the dusty plain of the northern Bekaa Valley, the powerful Jaafar clan is holding some 40 Syrians kidnapped on Friday in retaliation for the earlier abduction by the Syrian opposition of three Lebanese Shiites, one of them a Jaafar, in the Syrian town of Zeit, which lies just across the border.
The reason for the kidnapping of the three Lebanese remains unclear, although the reaction by the Jaafar clan was entirely predictable in an area where tribal loyalties and customs run deep and the Lebanese state exerts little influence.
“We are an army of 25,000; and if our people are not released quickly, we will go to war against the abductors,” says Ali Jaafar, a 25-year-old resident of Qasr, home to much of the Jaafar clan.
In general, the Shiites of the Bekaa Valley, many of whom are members or followers of the militant Hezbollah organization, support the Syrian regime. The Sunnis, however, support the Syrian opposition, ensuring that political differences take on a hard sectarian edge.
In the agricultural flatlands known as Masharei al-Qaa adjacent to the border, an elderly woman was shot dead last week by Syrian soldiers as she sat beside a mosque. Her daughter was wounded. On Saturday night, Syrian troops staged a brief incursion into the same area in an apparent attempt to capture Free Syrian Army militants or arms smugglers. According to a Sunni activist who has been assisting Syrian refugees in the Bekaa village of Jdeide, two FSA militants, one a Syrian from Homs and the other a Lebanese Sunni, were recently killed by Syrian troops who stormed their hideout in Masharei al-Qaa.