Mustapha ducks beneath a nectarine tree, its branches heavy with unripe green fruit, and indicates a shallow valley to the west just beyond the orchard.
“That’s where we practice with rifles,” he says. “There’s no one around here to disturb us.”
Mustapha is a veteran of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war who is using his past military experience to train dozens of Lebanese volunteers eager to cross the nearby border with Syria to join the armed opposition against the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
According to Mustapha and other Lebanese affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the main armed rebel group in Syria, some 300 Lebanese Sunnis from the northern Bekaa Valley area alone have taken up arms against the Assad regime in the past year. Most of them have joined FSA brigades in the area of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.
The Lebanese recruits are not the only non-Syrians to volunteer for the struggle against the Assad regime, the FSA volunteers say. Other foreign fighters include Jordanians, Tunisians, Algerians, and Saudis.
Their presence underlines the sectarian nature of the increasingly violent uprising, effectively turning the country into a new theater of jihad pitting a predominantly Sunni opposition against an entrenched regime elite drawn mainly from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“Today there is a need for jihad in Syria, a jihad for righteousness. It is a religious duty to help our Muslim brothers in Syria,” says Khaled, a portly Lebanese fighter from the Bekaa Valley who joined the FSA a year ago after being trained by Mustapha. Sporting a thick beard and black turban, Khaled arrived at a remote two-room safe house near Qaa less than an hour earlier having traveled along FSA-controlled routes from Homs, 20 miles north of the border with Lebanon, where he is based.
'A jihad for righteousness'
Lebanese volunteers for the anti-Assad struggle in Syria are motivated not only by religious obligation, but also from a deep-rooted sense of anger and frustration with what they regard as several years of humiliation and disenfranchisement within Lebanon’s political system. In particular, they blame Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in the country and the dominant influence in the Lebanese government, which is backed by Damascus.
A series of events that rankled Sunnis in recent years culminated in January 2011 with Hezbollah helping to engineer the downfall of a government headed by Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, Lebanon’s top Sunni political organization – a move his supporters decried as a “coup.” Mr. Hariri has lived abroad since April 2011. Recent developments suggest that the vacuum in Sunni leadership could be filled by more radical elements emerging from the Sunni street.
Two weeks ago, Lebanon was rocked by the worst violence in four years when Sunnis demonstrated against the arrest of a Sunni Islamist activist and the fatal shooting of a Sunni cleric by Lebanese soldiers. At least 12 people died in a week of violence. The fact that Mustapha and Khaled were willing to discuss the previously undisclosed military training activities and volunteering for the FSA underlines the bitterness felt by many Lebanese Sunnis. But both of them spoke on condition their real names would not be used, nor their villages revealed, due to the sensitive security environment in Lebanon.
Mustapha once was a member of a Syrian-backed political group in Lebanon but quit in protest in May 2008 when Hezbollah briefly overran Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut in retaliation for the then-government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s communications network. Mustapha returned to his home in the Bekaa Valley and says he quickly began helping to train secret “sleeper” cells of Sunni militants in readiness for a possible future confrontation with Hezbollah. But with the uprising in Syria, that focus has shifted somewhat.
“Today, all the people I train are recruits who want to fight the Assad regime,” he says.
Militant who fought in Bab Amr: No Al Qaeda presence in Syria
Mustapha says he waits until he has around 10 potential FSA recruits and then takes them to the orchard where he delivers theoretical lessons in weapons-handling and basic military skills in a small farmhouse. The practical training then takes place in rugged unpopulated areas of the Bekaa Valley.
“The secondary training ... includes learning how to plant roadside bombs and landmines, moving under fire and marksmanship skills,” Mustapha says.
Such training provides essential preparation for fighters like Khaled, who fought in the Bab Amr and Khaldiyah districts of Homs earlier in the year when it was besieged by Syrian troops.
“I experienced 48 hours of hell in Bab Amr when the regime destroyed a street using artillery and tanks. The house I was in was struck by shells and I had to jump from the third floor to escape,” he says.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” and Islamic militants and assert Al Qaeda is responsible for several devastating car bomb attacks in the past five months.
But Khaled insists that there is no Al Qaeda presence in Syria and that the foreign volunteers are simply devout Muslims engaged in jihad.
“If you took a picture of me holding a rifle in front of a black flag inscribed with ‘There is no God, but God’ and put it in a Western paper, everyone would say I am Al Qaeda,” he says. “[But] I am a Muslim on jihad to defend Muslims. If the West cannot understand that and thinks I’m Al Qaeda, then the West has a problem.”
Still, Khaled exposes the sectarian mind-set of many fighters when asked if Syria had become a source of jihad for all Muslims.
“Not all Muslims, just Sunni Muslims,” he replies. Mustapha, who was sitting beside Khaled, quickly reaches out and touches him on the arm.
“No, not just Sunnis,” he admonishes Khaled. “The jihad is for the sake of righteousness; it’s not a sectarian issue.”
Sectarian strife – on both sides of the border
There is a distinct sectarian dimension to the Syrian conflict, which lately has spilled into Lebanon, a country which itself has a long and tragic history of sectarian strife.
Overlooking Mustapha’s orchard training camp are steep rugged brush-covered mountains where Hezbollah trains its own Shiite militants. The western half of the northern Bekaa is a Hezbollah stronghold, home to Assad regime sympathizers and a string of Shiite-populated villages inhabited by influential clans for whom tribal traditions supersede loyalty to the Lebanese state. On the eastern flank of the valley are several Sunni-populated towns and villages most of whose residents actively support the Syrian opposition by joining the FSA, smuggling weapons into Syria or providing support for Syrian refugees fleeing the violence.
Two weeks ago, FSA elements kidnapped three Lebanese Shiites, one of them from the powerful Jaafar clan, from a village just north of the Lebanese border. In retaliation the Jaafars kidnapped 36 Syrians.
Clashes broke out in the Syrian border villages, pitting the armed Lebanese Shiites of the Jaafar clan against FSA rebels, some of whom were Sunni Lebanese. A prisoner exchange was agreed upon and all hostages were released on May 16.
Sunnis supporting the Syrian opposition “are all extremists,” says Rakan Jaafar, the mayor of the Shiite-populated village of Qaa near the border. “Things will be very bad if they take over in Syria.”
If some 300 Sunnis from the Bekaa Valley alone have joined the FSA, it is almost certain that Lebanese Sunnis from other parts of the country – particularly the north, where support for the Syria opposition runs high – have crossed the border to fight the Assad regime.
Asked if he knows of other places where Lebanese Sunni volunteers are receiving military training, Mustapha shrugs and says, “Look, everyone is training. Them [Hezbollah and its allies] and us. Everyone is training.”