Middle East
3:27 pm
Mon June 11, 2012

Lebanese Fear Spillover Violence From Syria

Originally published on Mon June 11, 2012 6:10 pm

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 Alawites 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 Bekaa 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 and 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 owns the farm, have abandoned it.

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, 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 crisis in Syria 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.

"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 acknowledges 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.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The trouble in Syria is spilling beyond its borders. Over the weekend, there was a rash of kidnappings in neighboring Lebanon. A Sunni sheik known to support the Syrian uprising was abducted. Then some Alawites, aligned with the Syrian government, were taken in retaliation. Days before that, the Syrian army shot several people in Lebanese territory.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has a report now beginning in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So we're standing here in a pretty dry and rocky valley. Behind us is a small grove of cherry trees and peach trees. And just ahead of us is a, you know, a row of mountains, and just over those mountains is Syria. You can see there's a little green valley that cuts through the mountains from Syria into Lebanon.

And that's where the trouble starts, people here say. They say that Syrian army vehicles come through that valley and shoot people - shoot Lebanese people over here in the border. We're up to six people total in this area just since the beginning of the year.

That's six people who've been killed just in this area, many more have been injured. Back out of the valley and away from the Syrian border, is the hospital room where Khatib al-Khoujairy shows us five bullet wounds.

KHATIB AL-KHOUJAIRY: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three in his abdominal, one in his leg, and one in his arm.

MCEVERS: Khatib says just last week, he and a few other farm workers were walking in a cherry orchard when he saw dozens of Syrian soldiers hiding among the trees.

AL-KHOUJAIRY: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: 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. 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 we do know is this isn't the only place where an attack like this has happened.

In April, one man was killed and injured several others injured by the Syrian army 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 like 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 to all the country's borders.

And now that the Syria crisis has ramped up, says Nadim Houry, who heads the Human Rights Watch office here, the Lebanese State remains absent.

NADIM HOURY: 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. But it can no longer act like an ostrich and keep its head in the sand and not do any of that.

MCEVERS: Houry admits that such an assertion of the Lebanese state would be easier said than done in a place that remains so divided, divided by sect and divided by whether people support or oppose the regime in neighboring Syria. Lebanese politicians from all sides sat down to a long-awaited national dialogue this week. Analysts say they expect few results.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.