Friday, May 31, 2013

A war without boundaries

Syrian children in the Arsal refugee camp sit next to a new toilet, above, built to accommodate the influx of people fleeing the war.

Syrian children in the Arsal refugee camp sit next to a new toilet built to accommodate the influx of people fleeing the war. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

Fresh posters of young Hezbollah martyrs mark the roads through the Shiite villages in the north of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley - the latest casualties in a war that knows no boundaries. Iran and Hezbollah call the main highway through the Bekaa ''Victory Road'' after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel. The older posters feature men who died fighting in the resistance against Israel - the pictures that went up in the past few days commemorate those killed in the harrowing sectarian battles fought across the border in Syria.

It is just one week since Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared a new front in Syria's two-year-long conflict, announcing thousands of Hezbollah fighters were backing Assad regime forces to the bitter end, but the blowback was almost instantaneous.

A rocket attack on the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh in southern Beirut, mortar fire in the Shiite village of Hermel, three soldiers killed in the Sunni village of Arsal and ongoing sectarian street battles in Tripoli - as one shaken but stoic resident after the other noted this week, Nasrallah has effectively ''brought the Syrian war to Lebanon''.

Children in a refugee camp for Syrians in the Lebanese town of Arsal.

Children in a refugee camp for Syrians in the Lebanese town of Arsal. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

It is difficult to quantify the fragility of the political and security situation in Lebanon - parliamentary elections scheduled for later this month are in danger of being postponed, while the army is struggling to assert some control over the decades-long hostilities that have burst to the surface as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate.


''The decision of Hassan Nasrallah to remove the veil of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, to very openly trumpet that they are not only involved but they are all in to the end … this is a very significant boundary he has crossed,'' says Mona Yacoubian, senior Middle East adviser at the Washington-based Stimson Centre. ''What Nasrallah has done is such a momentous marker in Hezbollah's evolution towards becoming essentially a Shiite militia.

''This project of resistance that had broad street credibility and appeal to the Arab masses has now all but vanished, and when he puts the Takfiris equal to, or even more of an enemy, than Israel, something very significant has happened.''

Dahlia Awwad, the friend and cousin of Loulou Awwad, who was killed when a Grad rocket struck her house in the Shiite village of Hermel in the Lebanese Bekka valley.

Dahlia Awwad, the friend and cousin of Loulou Awwad, who was killed when a Grad rocket struck her house in the Shiite village of Hermel in the Lebanese Bekka valley. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

Yacoubian says Nasrallah has ''catapulted a sectarian narrative ahead of a resistance narrative'', and his attempts to describe Hezbollah's foray in Syria as part of the resistance against Israel are ''just so hollow''.

If the anti-Hezbollah groups expand their attacks in retaliation for its advances inside Syria, the region could edge closer to all-out war between Syria, Hezbollah and Iran on one side and everyone else on the other, says Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

''It scared everyone when the rockets landed in the Dahiyeh on Sunday … this is the most serious thing [that has] happened in a long time - it is as bad as it has ever been,'' he says. ''What we have now is Hezbollah fighting against Syrian opposition forces inside Syria, many [mostly Sunni Islamist] forces in Lebanon fighting against Assad and Hezbollah in Syria, pro and anti-Bashar al-Assad groups [mostly Alawites and Sunnis] fighting each other in Tripoli, and unknown groups attacking Hezbollah in Beirut and murdering Lebanese soldiers in the border region with Syria.''

The haunting refrain of a prayer for the dead drifts across the terraced valley in the Shiite village of Hermel, just a few kilometres from Lebanon's border with Syria.

The Awwad family is sitting for a third day of mourning, and friends and neighbours continue to arrive to offer their condolences for a loss that has shocked the close-knit community. Their 20-year-old daughter Loulou was killed when she was hit by shrapnel after a Grad rocket landed on their house earlier this week. Her aunt suffered severe facial injuries and remains in a serious condition in a Beirut hospital.

Loulou's devastated father, Abdullah Mohammed Awwad, cannot believe the Syrian civil war has hit so close to home.

''Since the beginning of this crisis I was telling everyone, 'You never know if a rocket will hit a house and a massacre will occur'.

''I did not ever imagine it would be my house the rocket would land on,'' he adds, looking towards the staircase leading from their roof terrace to the ground floor that all but collapsed when the rocket hit.

Loulou's friend and cousin Dahlia Awwad, also 20, was standing next to her when she died. ''I didn't see the rocket land, but I felt it,'' she says, placing her hands across her stomach and chest to describe the rush of air that suddenly disappears with an explosion.

''I looked down and Loulou's blood was everywhere.''

Although those responsible for the rocket attack have yet to be identified, Awwad lays the blame squarely at the feet of those who fund groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist group fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army to overthrow the regime of Assad.

He also blames some residents of the nearby Sunni village of Arsal, who he believes are helping Jabhat al-Nusra and their affiliates.

''Even during the civil war we lived in harmony with Arsal - we are not blaming the entire village, we know there are good people there - but we also know some of them are helping the brigades.''

Just 20 kilometres separates Arsal and Hermel, but the two villages are intertwined in grief.

As Fairfax Media reached the Arsal office that registers newly arrived Syrian refugees on Thursday, we found a family of three sitting on the landing of a stairwell in a half-completed building next door. They had been there since they escaped Syria the night before.

Numb with sadness and tortured by fears of what may happen to her husband and son still inside Syria, Yara, her 20-year-old daughter, Mariam, and her 12-year-old son, Ahmed (who did not want their real names used), described their escape from the brutal battle for Qusayr.

Yara says the Free Syrian Army took them through the countryside to a school where there were thousands of women and children sheltering. From there, the Red Crescent drove them through regime checkpoints to the border, where hundreds were loaded onto a small truck, their bodies pressed tightly together, for the crossing into Lebanon.

Quietly, she beings to weep as she focuses for a moment on what her husband and son - a Free Syrian Army fighter - must be facing in Qusayr.

''It is incomparable to anything you can imagine,'' Ahmed says, as his mother wipes her eyes. ''They used every kind of weapon - from air strikes, tank shells, phosphorous and artillery - it is only by chance that we are still alive.''

Hezbollah and the Syrian Army had surrounded Qusayr on three sides but had not yet entered the city when they left, he said.

Arsal is usually a town of about 40,000, but its population has swelled to 65,000 with the arrival of so many Syrian refugees. There is not an empty house to be found, the president of the Arsal Municipality, Ali Houjayni, told Fairfax Media.

''We have adapted ourselves to the refugees,'' he says. ''People have opened their houses for relatives and friends from Syria.''

Those who cannot find private accommodation are forced to go to the small refugee camps that dot the outskirts of Arsal, where the wind picks up the dust and dumps it over absolutely everything - the tents, fresh washing, carpets and anyone who sets foot outside.

Houjayni denies Arsal is being used by militant groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra to fire rockets at its neighbours. ''Just because we support the aims of the revolution does not mean we are responsible for the attacks.''

The battle for the strategic city of Qusayr is perceived as a life and death fight for both the regime and the rebels. It provides a strategic supply route from Lebanon for the rebels as well as a pathway for the regime to reach the coastal mountains, where it may ultimately believe it can establish an enclave of control if the rebels gain significant ground.

Hezbollah knows that, too - it is not just fighting to support the Assad regime, but to keep its own border open with Syria so it can reach the north should Assad attempt to establish some form of enclave, analysts said.

But adding to the pressure inside Syria and Lebanon is the race to provide arms.

This week, the European Union, after significant lobbying from Britain and France, decided not to renew its arms embargo on Syria, clearing the way for European countries to supply arms to the rebels fighting a war that has so far cost upwards of 80,000 lives.

In response, Russia announced it was going ahead with its delivery of a sophisticated anti-aircraft system to Syria, which in turn prompted Israel to announce it may target the Russian-supplied weapons.

''This is where this whole arming charade is being revealed for what it is - an escalatory dynamic that serves no good purpose,'' warns Stimson's Yacoubian.

''From a civilian protection standpoint, this means more misery for Syrian civilians - it underscores this very dangerous dynamic that is unleashed when you eschew diplomacy for arming.''
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