A rash of kidnappings in Lebanon over the weekend, coupled with deadly cross-border attacks by the Syrian army, are all worrying signs that Syria’s troubles are continuing to spill over into its smaller and weaker neighbor.
In the most recent incidents, a Sunni sheik known to support the Syrian uprising was abducted. In retaliation, several Allawites aligned with the Syrian government were taken. Days before that, the Syrian army shot several people on Lebanese territory.
The troubles start in eastern Lebanon’s Bekka Valley, where residents say Syrian army vehicles cross over the border, come through the valley and shoot Lebanese people. Since the beginning of the year, Syrian attacks have killed six people in the area; many more have been injured.
In a hospital room outside the valley and away from the Syrian border, Lebanese farm worker Khatib al-Khoujairy is recovering from five bullet wounds: three in his abdomen, one in his leg, one in his arm.
Khatib says just last week, he and a few other workers were walking in a cherry orchard when he saw dozens of Syrian soldiers hiding among the trees.
“I saw the soldiers, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” he says. One worker died, the others were driven to the hospital in private cars. There was no sign of the Lebanese army.
Now the workers, and the family who own the farm, have abandoned it altogether.
Unclear Syrian Motives
Exactly what the Syrian soldiers were after remains unclear. Could the farmers be smuggling arms to Syrian rebels? Could they be rebels themselves? Are they just being punished for housing Syrian refugees who oppose the government?
What is known is this isn’t the only place where an attack like this has been reported.
In April, the Syrian army killed one man and injured several others in Turkey. That sparked international outcry. Turkey threatened to invoke the self-defense article of the NATO treaty, which says that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.
But Lebanon is different, in many ways.
First, analysts say, the Syrian army used to occupy Lebanon, and still acts as if it controls certain areas, especially those that are known havens of cross-border smuggling.
Second, even though Lebanon’s own civil war ended more than 20 years ago, the Lebanese army has yet to deploy along all of the country’s borders.
And now that the Syria crisis has ramped up, says Nadim Houry, who heads the Human Rights Watch office in Beirut, the Lebanese state remains absent, unable to resolve the growing conflicts in its own country.
“And that’s not sustainable. I think what’s needed, and what we’ve been repeating from the beginning to the Lebanese state is one, you need to protect all people present on your territory. And the Lebanese state has the authority as well to control any sort of illegal activity on its borders,” Houry says. “But it can no longer act like an ostrich and keep its head in the sand and not do any of that.”
Houry admits that an assertion of Lebanese sovereignty is easier said than done in a place that remains so divided internally and with what is happening in neighboring Syria.
Lebanese politicians from all sides are sitting down to a long-awaited national dialogue this week. Analysts say they expect few results.