On Syrian border, artillery thumps in shadows of medieval castle

Syrian rebel fighters have taken refuge in an old crusader castle and villages on the Lebanese side of the border, drawing Syrian Army fire.

Roula Naeimeh/REUTERS
A man walks past a damaged shop in the border town of Wadi Khaled after mortars from Syrian forces hit villages in northern Lebanon July 10.

A string of Sunni-populated villages along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria has turned into an active war front, with Syrian rebel fighters using the area as a de facto safe haven. Their presence draws nightly bombardments from the Syrian Army, posing a security dilemma for the Lebanese government.

At least four civilians have been killed and several more wounded since the nightly Syrian artillery bombardments began more than a week ago, targeting an area of some 32 square miles between this small village and the Wadi Khaled district 12 miles further east. Each night, the targeted Sunni villages empty as residents flee for safer areas away from the border.

“We are poor. We have no money. We are neglected by the government. And now the Syrian shelling has turned us into refugees in our own villages,” says Ahmad, a gaunt-faced, lanky farmer in his early 40s who lives in Nourat al-Tahta.

The border with Syria lies less than a mile north of Ahmad’s house. Here it follows the Kabir River, a shallow waterway that meanders through a steep wooded valley which provides some cover for Syrian civilians fleeing the violence in their homeland and for members of the rebel Free Syrian Army to slip in and out of the country at night.

Many of the villages in this area house large numbers of Syrian refugees, most of them with harrowing stories about atrocities they have witnessed and the dangers they braved to escape. Two young Syrian men from the mainly Sunni-populated town of Tel Kalakh, two miles north of the border, lay on mattresses on the floor of Ahmad’s house, resting from the sweltering midday heat. Pulling up his vest to expose the scar, one of them said he was shot in the chest by a Syrian sniper while riding a horse across the Kabir River into Lebanon a few months ago. He clung to the horse’s mane, bleeding heavily and made it to safety. The other said he was struck by bullets three times in his legs. He was in a party of seven that dashed across the border. Two members of the group were killed.

Now, however, casualties are closer to home for the residents of Nourat al-Tahta and neighboring villages.

Last week, a man died when he accidentally drove into a tree in his panic to flee shellfire in the village. The same night, two Syrians were cut down by shrapnel in the street. Mohammed, another Syrian from Tel Kalakh staying in Nourat al-Tahta, said he was hit by shrapnel while helping evacuate children from the village.

A foot-deep bomb crater beside a house with shell-pocked cinder block walls on the eastern entrance of Nourat al-Fawqa provides evidence that the Syrian Army is using large caliber artillery rounds to strike north Lebanon. Vicious heavy steel shrapnel shards lay scattered on the ground.

Lebanon struggles to respond

The Lebanese government, which is dominated by allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been hesitant to address the deteriorating security situation along the border, not only here but along other parts of the frontier that have witnessed brief Syrian troop incursions and isolated shelling.

On July 16, Adnan Mansour, the Lebanese foreign minister, played down the impact of cross-border breaches by Syrian military forces, saying “the incursions have involuntarily led to the fall of victims, but we cannot consider them as violations.”

Syria has blamed the violence on the presence of FSA militants in north Lebanon using the area as a springboard for cross-border attacks against regime forces.

“When border guards are targeted or Syrian territories are targeted by fire from the Lebanese side, then the solution should come through coordination between the two countries,” said Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, in early July.

This pocket of north Lebanon, although predominantly Sunni, also includes Christian and Alawite-populated villages. Many of their residents sympathize with the Syrian regime, or at least hold less favorable views of the armed Syrian opposition than local Sunnis.

“All the shelling here is because people fire from Lebanon at the Syrians and then the Syrians shell back,” says Edmond Elias, the mayor of Menjez, three miles east of Nourat al-Tahta, blaming the presence of “extremists” in neighboring Sunni villages.

The Lebanese army is presently redeploying troops from elsewhere in the country to the northern border in an effort to contain the security problems. The Lebanese army command said in a statement last week that the mission included clamping down on the cross-border infiltrations and arms smuggling operations and that troops would immediately respond to sources of fire “whichever side they may come from.”

Still, the operational choices facing the Lebanese army are bleak. Few Lebanese expect the army to stage counter-bombardments of Syrian artillery batteries that shell Lebanese territory. On the other hand, pursuing and arresting FSA militants sheltering on Lebanese soil will further worsen already tense relations with Lebanese Sunnis in the north who broadly back the uprising against the Assad regime and willingly cooperate with the armed Syrian opposition.

Waging war by night

Local Sunni residents along the border are coy about the presence of FSA militants in their villages. But as the setting sun turns the sky to the west of Nourat al-Tahta a deep crimson gold and residents climb into their cars to escape the coming night’s artillery shelling, the FSA men make their appearance. At Ahmad’s home, AK-47 rifles are brought out of hiding and walkie-talkies are switched on, tuned in to the frequencies used by the FSA or those of the regular Syrian army across the border.  

“Sometimes, we can have conversations with the officers in the Syrian army,” says Khaled, a member of the FSA’s Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade. “The other day, the officer swore at us and said he would destroy Nourat al-Tahta. We said ‘go ahead and try.’ They really hammered us that night,” he adds with a chuckle.

By 8 p.m., the village is almost completely deserted. The inky night sky is scattered with a wash of silver stars and the only sounds are cicadas in the trees and the hum of a distant generator. The first sound of shellfire comes minutes later, a distant barely audible thump from somewhere inside Syria.

Ahmad, the FSA men and Syrian refugees sit outside the front door chain smoking and sipping endless glasses of hot sweet tea and thick Turkish coffee. They amuse themselves by playing a clip on a cell phone showing one of their colleagues in the Tel Kalakh’s Martyrs’ Brigade pretending to be a street beggar, his hand outstretched not for money but for bullets. His obliging comrades wander past dropping a few rounds into his hand and are rewarded with extravagant gratitude from the “beggar.” Despite the deliberate humor, the video clip illustrates the FSA's pressing need to maintain a steady source of weapons and ammunition to pursue their struggle.

Khaled shows a picture of himself in uniform, holding a light machine gun and standing in a snow-covered courtyard of the Crusader-era Crac des Chevalliers, one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world, lying in Syria five miles north of the border with Lebanon. Eight hundred years after it was built, the castle has reverted from being a popular tourist destination to its original role as a military stronghold, today under the control of armed rebels and subject to repeated artillery shelling and air strikes by regime forces, according to the FSA.

A car pulls up alongside Ahmad’s house and the driver informs them that the Christians in the neighboring village of Dababiyah also have abandoned their homes this evening. The news is received with a thoughtful silence.

“That’s the first time the Christians have left their homes,” says one man. “Something’s up.”

Foremost in everyone’s mind is the village's proximity to the border just a few fields away. Only a handful of FSA men hiding out in the brush are there to prevent Syrian troops from staging a cross-border incursion to hunt down their rebel enemies.

An hour later, the FSA walkie-talkie crackles and a recording of a sheikh reciting a prayer is broadcast.

“Prayers before fighting,” says one man.

Most FSA operations occur at night when the militants can use the cover of darkness to maneuver and launch attacks. At 9.45 p.m., Khaled, who is listening intently to his radio, announces “It’s started. They [the Syrian army] are hitting Tallet Hosn.” Tallet Hosn is the Arabic name for Crac des Chevalliers.

Sunrise brings a respite

At 10 p.m., the shelling reaches Lebanon – a deep resonant thump of an exploding shell in the Kabir valley just north of the village. Ahmad and his companions move inside and sit on thin mattresses away from doors and windows with their backs to the walls. More shells fall, drawing closer, the blasts strong enough to reverberate through the walls and loosen flakes of paint from the ceiling. Some shells fall three or four at a time in quick succession.

The shelling subsides for an hour then resumes, repeating a pattern that lasts most of the night. During quieter moments, the men move back outside into the cooler air. A convoy of Lebanese soldiers slowly patrols the main road in a humvee and truck, hazard lights flashing.

FSA men in plainclothes and clutching the ubiquitous walkie-talkie occasionally emerge out of the blackness to smoke a cigarette and impart the latest news. One fighter paces up and down in frustration, constantly hitting the redial button on his mobile phone.

“Tel Kalakh has been heavily hit today. They used helicopter gunships against the area where his family lives and now no one is answering the phone,” explains Mohammed.

The fighter later discovers that his brother is alive but trapped under the rubble of his home which was destroyed over his head.

The clashes and shelling along the Lebanon-Syrian border have disrupted the lives of Ahmad and other villagers, especially farmers and shepherds who cannot risk moving too close to the river where some of their fields lie and sheep like to graze. But Ahmad is unrepentant in his support for the uprising against the Assad regime.

“We cannot be with a regime that massacres its own people, whether, Sunnis, Christians, or Druze. It’s not a sectarian thing for me. That’s why I support the Free Army [FSA],” he says.

The last shells explode softly in the distance shortly before the dawn sun begins to peep over the hills to the east. Ahmad and his companions stand up wearily.

“The sun is up. Now it’s safe to go to sleep,” he says.

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