All Anxious on the Syrian Front: Damascus' Long Shadow Creeps into Lebanon

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Bilal Hussein / AP

Syrian soldiers and a villager stand on the Syria-Lebanon border near the Lebanese village of Arida on Oct. 31, 2011

The uncertain future of an Arab League initiative to end eight months of violence in Syria has left residents of Knaysse, a windswept and remote village along Lebanon's northern border, gazing anxiously at a newly constructed Syrian army position. In the past month, Syrian troops have staged several incursions into Lebanese territory, mainly in areas populated by Lebanese Sunnis who sympathize with the opposition protesters against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "There are many violations by the Syrian soldiers. They shoot across the border at night with machine guns and have damaged our houses. They are frightened that people will attack them in the dark," says Khaled, an elderly resident dressed in a white headdress and thick black wool overcoat.

Knaysse is an impoverished farming village of simple concrete buildings scattered over a barren volcanic plateau some 20 miles (32 km) west of Homs, Syria's third largest city and a hub of the revolt against the Assad regime. Knaysse is a bleak and inhospitable place on a wet fall day as dark gray clouds scud across the horizon and smother the mountains to the south. Across fields of black soil and basalt boulders lies a Syrian military position, unnervingly close to the first houses of the village. The soldiers are hidden from sight behind bulldozed earth embankments and oil drums filled with rocks or cement and painted in the black, red, green and white stripes of Syria.

Border restrictions traditionally are lax in these remote areas, and local Lebanese often cross over to buy cheaper household goods and food in nearby Syrian villages. However, cross-border traffic has all but dried up in the past two weeks since Syrian troops began sowing land mines along the more vulnerable stretches of the border. "We are facing a new problem with the land mines. No one can go to Syria and no one can come from Syria," says Mohammed, a young man with a weather-beaten face and thick black beard who, like all residents interviewed, requested anonymity because of possible reprisals.

Lebanon's border with Israel has been mined for decades, and other areas of the country are still blighted by land mines left over from the 1975-90 civil war. But it is the first time that mines have been planted along the 230-mile (370 km) Lebanon-Syria border. Syrian officials reportedly have acknowledged that mines have been planted but say it is a defensive measure to prevent militants and weapons from being smuggled into Syria.

Certainly, incidents of arms smuggling have increased in recent months. Black-market arms dealers in Lebanon say prices have skyrocketed since mid-March, when the unrest in Syria began. But the smuggling remains ad hoc and unorganized, with Lebanese dealers selling nothing larger than automatic rifles, shotguns and the odd rocket-propelled grenade to individuals in Syria. A lively commercial smuggling conduit before the uprising broke out in Syria was the stony track cutting through a barren semidesert landscape east of Arsal village on Lebanon's eastern border with Syria. But all smuggling ground to a halt when Syrian troops sealed off the border and staged several raids last month against isolated Lebanese farmsteads. "They have been treating people really badly. Most of the farmers have left. I am still here because I have nowhere else to go," says Hussein Wehbe, who owns a few orchards of almonds and apricots and a flock of sheep at the foot of a mountain range that marks the border.

Lebanon has lived long beneath the shadow of its larger and more powerful neighbor, and its political landscape is deeply polarized between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime. The Lebanese government, which is backed by Damascus, has chosen to play down the cross-border troop incursions as well as several kidnappings in Lebanon of Syrian opponents of Assad reportedly by Lebanese allies of the Syrian regime. But many Lebanese worry that the border incursions and kidnappings could herald worse things to come if the violence in Syria intensifies.

The prospects of a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria look dim. A proposal launched by the 22-member Arab League to end the violence appeared to have foundered less than 24 hours after Damascus agreed to abide by the initiative. The proposal called for a withdrawal of troops from the cities, the release of all detainees imprisoned during the unrest and the launching of talks between the Syrian authorities and the opposition. Despite Syria's acceptance of the agreement on Wednesday, 20 people were killed on Thursday, most of them in Homs, and dozens arrested. Mass demonstrations erupted across Syria on Friday afternoon as protesters heeded opposition calls to test Assad's intention by staging as many rallies as possible. "We never expected Assad to abide by the agreement. He's playing for time," says Ahmad, a Syrian activist with the opposition Local Coordination Committees who fled to Lebanon in August. He presently lives in hiding in Tripoli in northern Lebanon and remains in daily contact with the opposition using Skype.

Ahmad says the opposition would only agree to talk to the Syrian leadership once the crackdown has ended and the detainees are released. But even then, he says, the only topic for discussion is Assad's peaceful removal from power. "Bashar al-Assad must know that it's all over for him, but he won't quit easily," Ahmad says.

But the Syrian regime still holds the balance of military power and the loyalty — for now at least — of a sizable percentage of the population. Increasingly, the opposition is resorting to guerrilla-warfare tactics, with the Free Syrian Army, composed of deserters, staging hit-and-run attacks and bomb ambushes and claiming a rising number of casualties among regular Syrian forces. The Arab League said on Thursday that it would give Damascus 15 days to implement its proposal. But the continuing antiregime protests and bloody crackdown by the Syrian security forces suggest that both sides are long past the possibility of dialogue and reconciliation.