War draws closer to Lebanon with Syrian threat of attack

In an ominous turn, Syria warned Lebanon today against continuing to provide refuge for rebels battling the Assad regime, saying its restraint was limited.

Hussein Malla/AP
Syrian refugees walk next of their tents at a small refugee camp, in Ketermaya village southeast of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday. Syria warned Lebanon today that it may attack if its neighbor continues to provide safe haven for rebels fighting in Syria's two-year-old civil war.

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Syria’s state news agency warned Lebanon today that it may attack if its neighbor continues to provide safe haven for rebels fighting in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. The threat comes as concerns intensify about the conflict's divisive impact on Lebanon's Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities, which maintain an uneasy coexistence.

"Syria expects the Lebanese side to prevent these armed terrorist groups from using the borders as a crossing point, because they target Syrian people and are violating Syrian sovereignty," a diplomatic cable from the Syrian foreign ministry to its Lebanese counterpart said, Reuters reports.

According to state-run SANA, the Syrian foreign ministry said rebels have been inflicting violence in Syria, then fleeing across the border into Lebanon. 

"Syrian forces have so far exercised restraint from striking at armed gangs inside Lebanese territory," the cable said.

An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. Lebanon has tried to keep the conflict at arm’s length, despite day-to-day reminders of the war’s impact, such as the nearly 350,000 Syrian refugees in the country, reports Lebanese news outlet The Daily Star. Lebanon has also seen rising levels of crime, which Prime Minister Najib Mikati has attributed to overflow from the conflict in Syria as well, according to a separate Reuters report.

Mr. Mikati said "700 Syrians were caught breaking the law [in Lebanon] in January, a high figure in a country of 4 million.”

"We need help. Lebanon is bearing the burden of the events in Syria," Mikati said in a plea for Arab states to contribute assistance and aid. Lebanon has requested $370 million to help the government and international agencies meet refugees' needs.

But Lebanon’s concerns go beyond the refugee crisis. It fought its own 15-year civil war that ended in the 1990s, and now observers fear the violence next door may be exacerbating long-running tensions between Christians, Druze, and Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

The New York Times reports that “an increasingly aggressive rhetoric has found a more receptive audience” in Lebanon recently.

Many Lebanese Sunnis identify closely with the mostly Sunni rebels fighting against the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite. At the same time they feel deprived, forsaken by the state and subjugated by other factions. Building off this anger and inspired by the gains of Syria’s rebels, they have become more vocally hostile toward Hezbollah, the Shiite party; the government, dominated by Hezbollah; and the Syrian regime.

“I believe Sunnis are coming out of chains,” said Omar Bakri, a radical Sunni cleric who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, after Beirut. “The blood of the innocents in Lebanon and Syria, we are not going to let it go without accountability.”

Any kind of cross-border attack, whether or not it is instigated by the Syrian government, could tip Lebanon into a larger conflict, according to the Times.

“Lebanon is already divided and it is just waiting for a spark, nothing more,” Bilal Masri, a Sunni militia leader, told the Times.

France and Britain this week are pressuring the European Union to once again discuss lifting the ban on supplying weapons to Syrian rebels, with both countries noting they may move forward on their own, reports the Washington Post.

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Beirut today that “The international community should recognize that the Syrian crisis represents an existential threat to Lebanon and should show Lebanon ... much stronger support than has happened until now.”

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