On the Lam in Lebanon
Syria’s Violence Bleeds Over the Border
Members of the Free Syrian Army’s mughaweer (commandos) and Ah al-Rassi (Freedom for the Assi River) brigades return to al-Qusayr after a battle near the Lebanese border in Homs. (The photos contained within this piece were taken by an independent photographer before the author visited the region. The Lebanese rebel-supporters and Hezbollah members interviewed throughout the piece refused to be photographed for obvious reasons.)
It’s dusk when the rebels move into position within a cluster of lemon and olive groves about 300 feet from the Syrian border post north of the bleak and dusty Lebanese farming village of al-Qaa. I’m watching the operation from behind the troops with their commander, a Lebanese man I’ll call “Hussein” who oversees 200 rebel fighters in the area.
“We’re moving some guys into [the nearby Syrian town of] al-Qusayr and need to distract Assad’s troops” Hussein tells me. His brigade is tasked with keeping the guns, money, and fighters flowing between Lebanon and Syria. He interrupts our conversation to bark out an order on his walkie-talkie, keeping it short and sweet so his signal has less of a chance of being intercepted.
“OK” Hussein orders. “Move in.”
His soldiers fan out across the olive orchard, preparing to attack the concrete buildings, ringed by sandbags, distracting the border guards while another unit of fighters seven miles away slips across the border undetected. A classic diversion.
The idyllic orchard explodes into war. Three rocket-propelled grenades fly toward the border post. A dozen automatic rifles and machine guns release a rain of ammunition; muzzle flashes light up the darkening sky.
“We do this every few days” Hussein laughs. “But so do they” he adds while pointing toward Assad’s troops.
The Syrian Army returns fire with machine guns and AK-47s of their own, sending bullets whipping through the grove at the rebels in front of us. Hussein and I are standing a few rows back, but we are still somewhat in the line of fire. I realize I’m uncomfortably close to the front line, even if I’m not right up on it. The bullets that hit the nearby trees aren’t aimed at us, but marksmanship is a moot point after you’re dead.
A moment later, Hussein’s troops pull back. They’ve distracted Assad’s border guys long enough for the other unit to cross into al-Qusayr undetected.
“Let’s go” orders Hussein. “The [Syrian] helicopter will be here soon.” We retreat as bullets continue to fly our way. The trees in the orchard are our only cover, and they don’t offer much protection.
The skirmish is part of a nearly nightly series of clashes along the Syria-Lebanon border that seems to indicate the civil war is morphing into a regional conflagration. A week after my visit with Hussein, a car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing an important pro-rebel Lebanese intelligence officer and sparking battles in the streets of the capital and Tripoli that resulted in at least seven deaths. Neighboring Jordan and Iraq are accepting refugees in an attempt to contain the spread of civil strife while simultaneously avoiding direct involvement.
In Lebanon, staying neutral isn’t so easy. The nation’s deeply divided population and weak central government have left it vulnerable to spillover from nearby conflicts. While most of the world is focused on the slaughter in Aleppo and rising tensions between Syria and Turkey, another, potentially devastating conflict is breaking out right next door.
L ebanon and Syria’s fates have been intertwined for a very long time. The Syrian military occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. Though Syrian security forces were brutal and corrupt, they were a central authority that eventually forced Lebanon’s 17 different religious sects and dizzying array of political factions to live together in some semblance of peace after 15 years of civil war and intermittent occupation by Israel. Over the years, Shia supporters of the militant group Hezbollah came to see Bashar al-Assad’s regime as both a guardian of the status quo and an invaluable ally in the never-ending war against Israel.
Syrian rule of Lebanon fell apart in 2005 after Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s most important Sunni Muslim politician, was murdered — allegedly by a Shia militant. Government officials were initially blamed for the assassination before suspicion turned toward a combination of Syria and Hezbollah. It was never conclusively determined who killed Rafik, but this led Syria — under domestic and international pressure — to end its military occupation of Lebanon.
This withdraw also paved the way for street battles between Lebanese Sunnis and pro-Syrian factions, the latter usually led by Hezbollah’s ruthlessly effective and powerful military force. Tensions came to a head in May 2008 when Hezbollah publicly voided a promise to the Lebanese people that its heavy weapons would only be used on Israel and moved into Beirut to clear the city of armed Sunni opponents. The result was a resounding Hezbollah victory, followed by tremendous Sunni bitterness.
When the revolution in Syria began, the dividing lines were clear: Hezbollah backed Assad and his regime in their fight against the largely Sunni-led FSA, and Lebanon’s Sunnis jumped on a chance to take down the regime they saw as their domestic rivals for power. It would be virtually impossible to convince either faction to stay on the sidelines.
For the past five years, Hussein’s life has tracked alongside this sort of dual consciousness. At first glance, Hussein is a small, dark-skinned man in his early 40s with the slight but powerful build of a manual laborer, but then his tightly coiled muscles make it apparent he is a highly trained soldier. He’s from the impoverished rural northeast of Lebanon, but like so many Lebanese, he moved to Beirut decades ago for the job opportunities. A Sunni of no particular devotion, Hussein lived and worked in Beirut’s Shia-dominated southern suburbs. His free time was spent as a fierce fighter for the Syrian Social National Party, a secular group with more than 100,000 members that fights for all Arab countries to be united under the banner of “Greater Syria”. The SSNP has conducted suicide bombings against Israeli troops and, at times, allied itself with Hezbollah in the fight against Israel. Hussein was never a jihadist, but as a member of SSNP from the early 1980s to 2008, he became a famed fighter in that struggle.
“I wanted to free my country from the Zionists” Hussein told me. “I believed in the Syrian resistance agenda and loved Hezbollah and its members with all my heart. I fought alongside them as a patriot and a brother for 20 years. I was one finger in their fist.”
Even as he leads Sunni men — both Lebanese and Syrian — in a bloody struggle to take down the Assad regime, Hussein uses skills he honed over two decades of fighting alongside Hezbollah against Israel as a salaried employee of Syria. He literally embodies the insanely complex clusterfuck of contradictions and tensions that define the dysfunctional relationship of the two nations.
Despite being a Sunni, Hussein took part in the May 2008 Hezbollah and SSNP takeover of West Beirut, helping to coordinate fighters who stormed the streets to remove Sunni politicians who were attempting to wrest control away from Hezbollah. “He’s a legend for his courage” one Hezbollah fighter told me. “But we lost him.”
In the eyes of Hezbollah members I spoke with, how and why he defected is completely pointless. Despite being a Sunni who lived in a predominately Shia neighborhood, it never occurred to Hussein that anyone would see him as an opponent of Hezbollah. But even as he was helping lead the fight against his fellow Sunnis who were then in control of the Lebanese government, someone in his neighborhood decided to throw a Molotov cocktail through his window. His wife and 12-year-old daughter escaped the flames. Three of his other children — two very young sons and a daughter — were burned to death.
Hussein told me this story one day as we sat in his home, or these days the place where he crashes and gets to see the surviving members of his family when he’s not coordinating the movements of troops on the border. He sat under three large pictures of his dead children, surrounded by his wife and remaining family members.
As Hussein spoke, his eyes were eerily emotionless: “I know who did it. The time wasn’t right for me to take any revenge, so I just quit the SSNP and moved my family back up here.” He paused. “I still see the men I know did it, and now I can take my revenge.”
I asked a Hezbollah contact of mine whether he had heard about Hussein’s loss. “Hezbollah doesn’t burn children to death” he said. “It was local thugs in his neighborhood. But we know at any time Hussein might come after any Shia for what happened. I would do the same, and we know how tough he is; it’s a problem for all of us.”
Instead of going vigilante, Hussein waited and plotted his vengeance. The Syrian civil war gave him the perfect chance to retaliate, although he denies that punishing Hezbollah for what he believes they did to his family is his sole motivation. He also points to a version of pan-Syrian-Lebanese brotherhood as his reason for supporting the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army. He believes that Hezbollah has chosen to support Assad out of insipid self-regard, not the justness or rightness of the cause.
“How can I let my brother fight an oppressor like this filthy regime in Damascus and not help him?” Hussein said. “How can I not want to free Lebanon from a militia like Hezbollah? This is an obligation for my people and my religion.”
Now he trains small groups of Syrian and Lebanese troops to fight against the Assad regime and, increasingly, Hezbollah, which continues to deny that they have forces stationed in Syria despite all of the tactical preludes that many in the region think point to a larger scheme.
FSA fighters celebrate after an attack on Assad’s forces in the village of Nizareer, near the Lebanese border.
ack at the border, I witness an exchange that makes me a believer. Assad’s troops are sending mortar rounds into the fields around us. We retreat into a nearby refugee camp filled with FSA fighters who have fled Syria and are now camped here, on a barren stretch of no-man’s-land on the border.
“A mortar landed 50 meters away last night, but thank God none of us were hurt” a 12-year-old boy tells me as shells continue to explode in our general vicinity. It seems to me, and my hosts, that Assad’s troops are firing indiscriminately.
Then I hear something unexpected. A series of loud whistles that sound like they are moving in the wrong direction — from Lebanon into Syria. I’ve heard this squeal before. It’s the sound of a Soviet Katyusha rocket launcher.
The rebel fighters seem nonplussed when I ask whether the rockets are being shot from Lebanon into Syria.
“No, that’s not the FSA,” he says. “That’s Hezbollah shelling al-Qusayr; they do it every single night these days.”
The previous day, the rebels had taken me to where their FSA comrades said they had ambushed a convoy of what they alleged to be Hezbollah-driven SUVs en route to Syria. It was clear from the debris on the road — broken rearview mirrors, shell casings — that a battle had taken place. Two days later, Hezbollah announced the funeral of a commander who had been killed in “pursuit of his jihadi activities” a standard description used by the group when a member falls in battle.
After viewing the scene, I speak with both Hussein and “Younis” an FSA commander.
“Our patrols from here and in the area around [nearby] Aarsal encounter Hezbollah troops on both sides of the border almost every night” Younis tells me. “Neither the FSA nor Hezbollah wants to admit we’re having regular gun battles inside Lebanon, but we’re very close to Hermel [a famed Hezbollah stronghold], and so our men encounter their men every night.”
The fights inside Lebanon are usually brief, with both sides just covering their asses enough to allow for a hasty retreat. This may be due to the fact that if the body count rises too high inside its borders, the Lebanese government will be forced to address the fact that swaths of its territory have become an extended battlefield for Syria’s civil war.
Without an official statement from any side, the exact extent of Hezbollah’s potential involvement in Syria is hard to determine. When I asked several of my Hezbollah contacts whether they were firing into the country or directly participating in conflicts, they denied both charges and only agreed to be quoted on background. They admitted they are on “standby” to join the fight if the situation demands it, though they didn’t specify what turn of events, exactly, would push them to get involved.
“We’ll deal with Hezbollah directly inside Lebanon,” Hussein says, as Younis nods in agreement. “But only after we remove the Syrian regime.”
Still, after all of this, I am dubious of the claim that Hezbollah is openly shelling rebel-held cities in Syria. But there’s an easy way to find out whether they’re telling the truth. I ask to see where the rockets are being launched from. They agree.
We jump in a truck and head away from the border toward Hermel, next to the range of Mount Lebanon on a wide plain that stretches through the embattled city of Homs in Syria. On a clear day, standing on even a slight rise reveals a clear line of sight — Lebanon to the south and Syria to the north.
As we’re driving, the windows reverberate as a salvo of rockets is launched. When we arrive at what I suppose is our destination and exit the car, Hussein points to a hilltop about three miles away. Smoke is rising from the crest. We’re not close enough to see the launchers, but it’s obvious that the smoke is coming from a cluster of Shia villages along a portion of the border that’s squarely within Hezbollah’s jurisdiction.
The sky darkens as a lightning storm breaks over the southern Beqaa Valley. We all freeze at the sound of helicopter rotors coming in our direction. I spot a Russian-made Mi-18 chopper gunning for the orchards and groves where we were positioned just a few hours before.
“You need to leave now,” Younis says. “If it sees this truck, it’ll come after you unless you get back behind the Lebanese Army checkpoint.”
This checkpoint, about a mile behind us, is the only trace of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ authority over the border. As the chopper gracefully arcs into a firing run and a series of large explosions rips across the ground under it, the outpost seems like a long way away.
“Barrel bombs,” explains Younis, referring to homemade devices constructed by the Syrian Army: 55-gallon drums packed with explosives that are then dropped imprecisely from helicopters. They’re frequently employed against rebel cities inside Syria. Although I’ve never heard of their use inside Lebanon, I’m watching it happen right now.
As we exchange hasty good-byes, Younis, like any good host, invites me to come back at my leisure. “You can come into al-Qusayr with my men any time” he says. “Or I can take you to see a barrel bomb they dropped two days ago. It didn’t explode, it just sits in the field near my tent.”
Photos by Sam Tarling/Executive Magazine
For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.