The patchwork of Sunni Muslim and Shiite villages arrayed along the northern border with Syria are heavily embroiled in the protracted struggle there, but with a distinctive twist.
Fighters from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite movement, cross the frontier to fight for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who is Alawite and whose sect dominates the government. Sunni Muslims sneak over to join the opposition. Once back home in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, however, both sides observe an uneasy truce.
“Inside they are slaughtering us, but as soon as we cross into Lebanon there is nothing between us,” said Abdullah, 22, a stocky Sunni farmer who now toils as both a fighter and a smuggler, using only one name to protect his identity. “I would say it is something normal to fight on the other side, given that we are against the regime while they are with it.”
Yet the confrontation over controlling the strategic border throws off sparks that could ignite a bigger conflagration given that it is part of the Sunni-Shiite contest to dominate the Middle East. “There is already a kind of chaos along the border which neither Lebanon nor Syria fully controls, so there is a fear that it will spread into Lebanon,” said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese academic and expert on Arab-Iranian relations.
Recently nearly two dozen Lebanese Sunni jihadists were ambushed by the Syrian Army soon after they crossed the border, but details of the number killed, wounded or captured are still unconfirmed.
With the battle for Damascus heating up, more and more Syrian soldiers are leaving the border area to deploy in the capital, opening up new opportunities for the Lebanese fighters along the frontier.
Accusations that Hezbollah deployed several thousand fighters across Syria started soon after the uprising erupted in March 2011, not least because its Iranian-supplied arsenal and years of fighting Israel had forged it into one of the most able armed forces in the region.
But interviews with more than a dozen government officials, members of Parliament, fighters and analysts suggested a far more limited, but concentrated, engagement.
Hezbollah fighters have been sent to Syria to protect areas important to Shiite Muslims, ranging from a couple of Shiite villages near Aleppo to the tomb of Sayida Zeinab in Damascus, a holy pilgrimage site for the sect, analysts said. Hezbollah has also advised the Syrian Army on strategy and tactics for urban warfare, as well as training, they said.
The fighters’ main focus, however, has been dominating the Lebanese-Syrian border, an essential link in the supply chain for Iranian weapons coming to Hezbollah through Syria. The Syrian government also wants to limit the fighters and weapons coming to the Free Syrian Army, and Hezbollah wants to protect fellow Shiites and Alawites.
For similar reasons, Sunni fighters, particularly jihadists, have also deployed to Syria, seeking to bolster the insurgents and smuggle what weapons they can. The main difference is that Hezbollah deployed as an organization, while the Sunni effort seems more freelance, analysts said.
The number of fighters involved is difficult to assess, but it seems to be small, analysts said, based on circumstantial details like the several dozen funerals for fighters from both sects combined.
Hezbollah strongly denies that it is fighting in Syria, and it is not alone in that — Lebanese of all stripes say that Syria does not need more fighters. Hezbollah’s media relations department rejected requests for an interview for this article, but one senior official commented briefly.
“We are not involved in the fighting inside Syria,” he said, speaking anonymously because he was not given permission to comment publicly. “But since there were attacks on the villages of Shiites, Christians and other sects by the Syrian rebels, resulting in massacres, we have been involved in some activities on the logistics level.”
He declined to elaborate. In his many speeches, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, generally avoids the topic of Syria.
But the military involvement is an open secret. Hezbollah news media carry periodic reports about young men who died while carrying out their “jihad duties” without specifying where. Posters of new martyrs have cropped up in Shiite villages. There have been no recent deadly clashes along the Israeli border.
After one high-profile funeral this fall of an important officer from the Bekaa, Ali Hussein Nassif, whose killing was claimed by the Free Syrian Army, Mr. Nasrallah did say Hezbollah was providing assistance, not fighting, to help protect the 30,000 Lebanese who inhabit some 23 villages along the border.
In Arsal, in the northern Bekaa, Abdullah, the fighter, said he used to live in a predominantly Sunni Muslim village of some 250 houses called Joosy on the Syrian side of the poorly demarcated border. It is too small to appear on most maps and is surrounded by four other similarly small hamlets — three Shiite and one Christian.
“In the beginning the army was strong, but when they weakened they needed Hezbollah,” he said, saying Lebanese fighters started showing up in significant numbers four months ago.
Hezbollah forces occasionally raided houses inside Lebanon to seize weapons, according to Abdullah and officials in Arsal, but mostly ignored the smuggling of small arms like machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Sunnis try not to provoke them because they dominate the Bekaa and could shut all the smuggling routes if pushed.
Hezbollah forces keep a low profile. But there are clues, like the one or two ambulances and a couple of black Jeep Cherokees with tinted windows and no license plates parked around a small Hezbollah mosque outside the border town of Qaa, officials in Arsal said.
Wounded Hezbollah fighters brought across the border are shuffled quickly into an ambulance, and one of the Cherokees provides an escort, blowing past all the checkpoints on the main highway, they said.
“The Lebanese are not entering all the battles in Syria, just the ones they consider strategic,” said Sheik Hussam al-Ghali, a senior figure with the Islamic Group, the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Hezbollah provides them with some tactical advice and training.”
Bekaa residents have long lived off smuggling, moving cherries, cigarettes and auto parts, among other items, so the war provided only the latest wrinkle. In a heavily tribal culture, residents avoid confrontations that might ignite an endless cycle of revenge killings, which is one reason the wary truce largely holds, experts said.
“Smuggling has been the family business there for generations,” Sheik Ghali said. “It just happens that the most profitable items to smuggle right now are fighters and weapons.”
In Tripoli, Ahmad, a muscular Lebanese in his mid-20s with a bushy red beard, said he fought with the opposition in Homs and Qusayr over the summer until he was shot in the arm and sustained shrapnel wounds in his back and legs.
He displayed several home videos on his phone, showing him scrambling over a captured tank and attacking checkpoints, a black religious band tied around his forehead.
He and other fighters in Tripoli said that Hezbollah had been pushing the sectarian rift since it declared that its fighters who died killing Sunnis in Syria were performing jihad.
In addition, Ahmad and others said they were battling Persian domination of the Middle East.
“We don’t want to destroy Lebanon, so we fight in Syria,” he said. “We are not really fighting Lebanese, anyway. Those guys are loyal to Iran.”
The New York Times