Syria’s raging civil conflict has spilled across the border into Lebanon as artillery of the Bashar al-Assad regime fires shells on northern Lebanese communities suspected of harbouring Syrian insurgents, a move Lebanon seems powerless to stop.
“We’re terrified every night,” said Obeida Darwish, a mother of four, who says she herds her family into a neighbour’s basement where they and other residents seek refuge from the attacks.
“Last night, we couldn’t sleep at all, the shelling was so intense,” said Ms. Darwish, referring to a barrage on Sunday night that struck the home of her neighbour next door. Fortunately, no one was in the house at the time, she said.
Good thing. A visit by daylight showed that all the windows on the front of the cinder-block and stucco house were blown in and the porch damaged by a shell that left a silver crater at the bottom of the front steps.
The Darwish family is one of only a handful of households still living, at least by day, in this community that normally has a population of about 1,500.
“At night, when the shelling starts, this place is a ghost town,” said Mohamed Adel Hamid, a town councillor from nearby Al-Biri. “Most people left a week or so ago,” he said, explaining that the majority moved to centres such as the city of Tripoli, about 35 kilometres away, or to nearby towns set further back from the Syrian border that snakes along the steep and tree-lined Kabir River valley.
The shelling, Mr. Adel Hamid said, began July 10 and has continued every night since, affecting not just Noura al-Tahta but several other mostly Sunni communities along a 15-kilometre stretch of the frontier.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman last week instructed that Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon be called in and given a formal letter of protest over unspecified “border violations,” which was meant to include the attacks in the north. However, Adnan Mansour, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, is a Shia member of Parliament allied with the Hezbollah-dominated government – and Hezbollah and its allies are supporters of the Assad regime.
Despite the presidential order, Mr. Mansour chose to play down the matter. He issued a mild memo and declined to summon the Syrian ambassador, explaining that we “don’t summon our brothers.” The shelling continued.
The Lebanese Army is also caught up in the country’s interminable political feuds. Though deployed in the northern area, it does little to halt the attacks. Firing back at the Syrians would upset Lebanon’s ruling Shia-Christian bloc (not to mention upsetting the Syrians, who might fire back at them). Neither will they try to capture the Syrian fighters known to be in the area for fear of upsetting the northern Sunni population and its Christian allies. So the soldiers remain in their camp, adjacent to a church in the next village, their tanks and armoured personnel carriers covered with green canvas.
Indeed, on Monday, while the army flexed its muscles and refused to allow this journalist to enter the border area via the main road, its troops did nothing to stop him from finding an alternative back-roads route to the frontier.
The shelling, which has tended to target the Noura al-Tahta area, recently widened to include a mixed Sunni-Christian town that had provided nightly shelter to many residents of Noura al-Tahta. Now they, too, are afraid every night.
“It serves them right,” said Yusef Rawi, a Lebanese Alawite from the mixed Sunni-Alawite community of Ksar Abboudiye. “The Syrians only fire on those towns that help the FSA,” he said, referring to the loose coalition of Syrian insurgents known as the Free Syrian Army.
Mr. Adel Hamid, the town councillor who lives in Noura al-Tahta, acknowledges the accusations of helping the FSA are “partly true.”
“We don’t shelter the FSA,” he said, “but we do help Syrian refugees and injured Syrians who come here. And some of those people do return to Syria and rejoin the fighting.”
Yes, it’s a kind of “safe haven” for some of them, he said.
Ironically, another incident on Sunday night brought Syrian retaliation down on Mr. Rawi’s Alawite-Sunni community.
At about midnight, he said, Mr. Rawi was jolted from his sleep on his second-floor balcony overlooking the Kabir Valley when shots rang out first from the Lebanese side of the border, then from the Syrian side.
The gun battle lasted three hours, he said, but no one in the town was injured. It appears that a group of armed Sunni partisans had crept down by the river and started firing at the Syrian forces on the other side.
The group, said to be under the direction of Khaled Daher, an MP for the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, has been involved in several incidents in the Kabir and Khaled Valleys on the northern frontier with Syria.
Mr. Daher, a conservative Muslim associated with Lebanon’s emerging Islamist community, is fiercely opposed to the Syrian regime and to its allies in Lebanon.