Siria, la polveriera del nord del Libano

Il nord del Libano potrebbe essere il primo territorio del Paese dei Cedri a esser investito dalla guerra civile ormai serpeggiante nella regione centrale siriana di Homs. I timori di molti sono confermati da due articoli apparsi il 17 novembre.

Il primo, da Tripoli, è del servizio informativo dell’ufficio umanitario delle Nazioni Unite (Irin). Il secondo è un reportage del Guardian britannico dal nord del Libano al confine con la Siria e si concentra sul ruolo dei militari siriani unitisi ai rivoltosi anti-regime.

(Irin) In the office of the former general turned self-styled humanitarian, concerned locals and Syrian refugees talk of taking up arms to defend a country they believe the national army will not.

“If you do not protect our land, we will create a resistance to protect our land,” said former general Hameed Hamoud, outlining the message he had been trying to deliver to the government in Beirut concerning repeated incursions by the Syrian military into Lebanese territory.

“We’ve been trying to make them aware that if they do nothing it will create chaos across our country”. In his small office in Tripoli, the northern port that is Lebanon’s poorest city and the stronghold of Sunni support for former prime minister Saad Hariri, MPs from Hariri’s Future Movement nodded their approval while a delegation from the eastern Bekaa Valley border town of Arsal had travelled more than 100km to voice their concerns.

Also present was a representative of the estimated 5,000 Syrians who have fled to Lebanon to escape the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters demanding President Bashar al-Assad step down. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says more than 3,500 people have died since the uprising began in March.

Since the initial influx, hundreds of Syrians have gone back, but others continue coming and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says more than 3,500 Syrians are registered in Lebanon. Because many are not official, actual numbers are likely to be higher. In addition, registered or not, the Lebanese government considers Syrians in the country to be internally displaced, leaving them with an ambiguous legal status.

Ransacking in Arsal. According to activists, both legal and illegal crossings are closely guarded, and escapees are risking their lives, whether entering or leaving Lebanon. Indeed, the delegation from Arsal claimed the Syrian military had been crossing the non-demarcated border into Lebanon almost daily over the past few months, shooting at water tanks and ransacking farmhouses.

“They are looking for Syrians but there are no Syrians there. It’s like they want to mobilize people to fight back,” said Ahmed al-Fleete, deputy mayor of Arsal. “People there are farmers, not military. But if they have their own guns they might shoot back.”

Refugees come to my home and now it is watched. I was interrogated by the police who wanted to know why people come and go from my house, saying they would hand me over to Syria.In a later interview, the mayor of Arsal, Ali Hojairi, said locals had been in armed clashes with Syrian troops inside Lebanon three times in the past few months. “If the Lebanese army will not protect us we will use our arms to protect ourselves,” he said.

On 6 October, Syrian troops penetrated Lebanese territory and killed a Syrian national on Lebanese soil, according to a report by the UN Secretary-General on the implementation of Resolution 1559, aimed at strengthening Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence.

The Arsal delegation said they had sent a complaint over the escalation in long-standing border violations by the Syrian military – a subject of concern in the UN report – to their local representatives in the regional capital Baalbek.

But with Baalbek controlled by Shia militant group Hezbollah, a long-standing ally of the Syrian regime, which in June forced the resignation of Hariri’s government, neither Fleete, nor Hamoud nor any of Hariri’s MPs believed concerns over Syrian incursions were being heard by the Hezbollah-led government in Beirut. Syrian defectors and dissidents have also allegedly been arrested by the Lebanese army and sent back to Syria.

“We don’t feel safe in Lebanon,” said the representative of the exiled Syrians, who asked to be known only as Abu Omar. “Refugees come to my home and now it is watched. I was interrogated by the police who wanted to know why people come and go from my house, saying they would hand me over to Syria.”

No concrete figures exist for the numbers of Syrian refugees who have either been killed by Syrian troops on Lebanese soil or arrested in Lebanon and deported back to Syria.

Help needed. While Lebanon’s Higher Relief Council has been providing some basic assistance to the Syrians, many of whom are housed in disused schools with little or no heating or running water, the government’s refusal to recognize them as refugees means they are not entitled to the full care and protection of UNHCR.

They complain that assistance is waning and that they cannot earn a living for fear of arrest or kidnapping if they leave their shelters. “We need to make some money,” said one, who has been staying with his wife and children in the remote town of Wadi Khaled, along the Syrian border, in a school-turned-shelter for approximate 400 people. “We tried to leave [Wadi Khaled] for work, but we were stopped by the Lebanese army,” he said.

Just last week, two of our friends were kidnapped… at night, we are especially scared,” he added. In October, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati promised to cater to the Syrians’ needs, but Lebanon’s politicians remain divided on Syria’s uprising, and the Lebanese government primarily supports Assad’s clampdown. Rumours of complicity between Lebanese and Syrian authorities abound.

As a result, Syrians are often faced with harsh treatment from Lebanese authorities, according to Nabil Halabi, a Lebanese human rights lawyer. In addition to security threats, daily needs are not adequately met, said Halabi, who has criticized the Lebanese government’s aid to the refugees.

Promises. On 9 November, Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman said Syrian officials had been in contact and promised to respect Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. “Syria expressed regret for the unintended violations,” Sleiman said in remarks published by Al-Liwaa newspaper.

He also confirmed Syrian troops had laid mines along sections of the Syrian side of the border, particularly in the northeast. A source close to Sleiman’s office told local English-language The Daily Star that senior Lebanese and Syrian officials had formed a follow-up committee to discuss recent alleged incursions into Lebanon.

Prime Minister Mikati had earlier admitted that Syrian nationals had disappeared on Lebanese soil, while Internal Security Forces Commander Major General Ashraf Rifi alleged his officers had uncovered proof that members of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut had played a role in abductions.

Having resigned from the military in protest at the Hezbollah-led armed takeover of parts of Beirut in May 2008, which the army did nothing to stop, Hamoud accused the Iranian-financed group of serving Syria’s interests by ignoring Syrian military incursions and warned of rival Hariri and Hezbollah groups arming in Tripoli. (Irin, 17 novembre 2011).

(The Guardian). The man from the Free Syrian Army pointed to a spot on a distant hill marked by a lone white tent and a cluster of trees. “That’s how we get in,” he said of his furtive and increasingly frequent trips back to Syria. “We wait for them to look the other way and we move.”

In early May, Ahmed al-Arabi left his job as a captain in the Syrian army and took to life as a rebel in exile in the foothills of northern Lebanon. Ever since, his role as a revolutionary seems to have grown by the month.

But the events of the past week, which have seen Syria suspended from the Arab League and a spike in an already bloody crackdown, appear to have propelled Arabi and his cause to a point he thought it would take much longer to reach. “There is a real chance now,” he said of the Free Syria Army’s intensifying guerrilla campaign against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Just in the past few days in Homs alone, we have seen 70 defections from the regular troops and 13 from the special forces.”

Now, the loose alliance of disaffected soldiers who have left the Syrian military since its violent crackdown against rights demonstrators began in March, appears to have announced its arrival as a national resistance movement.

Three attacks on Wednesday morning targeted key sites in Syria. All were launched by men who, like Arabi, were reluctant loyalists at the start of the year. And all were soon shown on regional television, which has become a veritable operations room for rebels, who rarely get to communicate directly.

“That was us,” said Arabi as al-Jazeera showed footage of a man firing a machine gun, followed by a huge roadside bomb targeting what looked like a convoy. “There will be many more of them,” he added. “Most defectors who have come to Wadi Khaled have now gone back to organise and launch attacks. The regime is in trouble now.”

This tiny, drab border town in Lebanon’s impoverished north has become one of two main hubs for an armed resistance campaign that is increasingly taking shape inside Syria; the other is in southern Turkey. With rugged hills and plunging valleys on both sides, the town has always been an ideal smuggling route for Lebanese and Syrians, supplying a vibrant black market. These same well-plied routes are now used to move men and women – many of them former soldiers who have regrouped in Wadi Khaled and travelled back home, in some cases with extra weapons sourced in Lebanon.

Arabi was reluctant to discuss weapons supply lines into Syria, although he said no states were involved. He was more comfortable talking about Syrian military infiltrations and the planting by the Assad regime of land mines in the past month, which have sharply raised the stakes on the mountain trails.

Under a light rain, Arabi stepped over a small wall and pulled a vegetable sack from the foliage. He dropped it on the cement with a little too much abandon given what was inside, before pulling out a large anti-tank mine. “I pulled it out of the ground last week,” he said. Fresh mud was still caked to the weapon, about the size of a dinner plate. “Don’t step on it if you’re heavy.

“There are hundreds along the border. But there are soldiers who have told us where the mines were planted and where it is still safe to travel.”

The veteran of 29 years in the Syrian military paints a picture of soldiers increasingly reluctant to stick to the official narrative of the uprising, which tells of an out-manoeuvred national army fighting armed extremists backed by Europe, the US and the Sunni Arab world. “In the officer corps, they know what is going on, but are too scared to do anything. There are many people inside the military who are better off for us there.”

Arabi, a native of Homs, where an armed fightback has been gathering steam since August, suggests the Free Syria Army’s strength is about 15,000 nationwide. “Many of those who have joined us have come with their weapons, or pointed us to places where weapons are being stored,” he said. If his estimate is correct, the force, though loosely organised and lacking a cohesive command and control structure, poses a potent and growing problem for the military.

Military leaders are likely to focus on the relative ease with which rebels such as Arabi and former colonel Riad al-Assad, who commands a separate force from southern Turkey, are able to slip across the border and help with decision making.

Arabi said he shuttled to Homs most weeks. And the former colonel’s men are known to use routes to Idlib in the north, where they claim to have established a haven.

For the Free Syria Army, however, a large obstacle stands in front of their ultimate goal – the fall of the Assad regime. The senior military leadership and the Syrian establishment remain entwined by members of the Alawite sect, to which the Assad clan belongs. There have been no known defections from any senior establishment position.

In a sign of the enduring strength of key military units, the Fourth Division, controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, moved into the National hospital in Homs on Wednesday, setting up what appeared to be a large command post.

However, Arabi believes momentum will soon swing fully in the guerrillas’ favour. “If we can get a UN resolution on a no-fly zone, this will all be over in 24 hours,” he said. “There are thousands who are too scared to move before they know it’s safe to do so.”

Before leaving Wadi Khaled, Arabi joined us on a drive along rain-soaked ridge lines and valleys. A black-and-white scarf bound tight around his head to ward off the cold, he pointed across a muddy field, where he said a friend was killed in a recent battle as he tried to return to Homs. Under grey foreboding skies, it looked like the Yorkshire moors.

At a point down the valley he showed us a Syrian position tucked into a tree line. “I know all of their places,” he said. “We have to.”

With that, Arabi said he had a meeting to attend and bade us farewell. He said he never slept in Wadi Khaled, moving between nearby villages at night to evade Syrian spies or their Lebanese proxies. “When this is all over, we will meet for lunch in Homs.” (The Guardian, 17 novembre 2011).