BEIRUT — A long-feared influx of rebels fleeing Syrian battlefields for Lebanon was being blamed Monday for weekend violence that saw fighting spread throughout much of Syria’s tiny neighbor.
The ongoing battle between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and anti-Assad rebels for the rural mountainous region of Qalamoun, along the Syria-Lebanon border, has pushed scores, if not hundreds, of fighters from a variety of Syrian rebel groups into Lebanon, where security officials say their presence is destabilizing an already-volatile situation.
“Some rebels seem to have decided that operating directly in Lebanon is safer than Syria,” one exasperated Lebanese security official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters. “Some of these are normal rebels tired of war who have entered Lebanon with their families as refugees, but we’re seeing evidence some are with al Qaida or the Nusra Front,” an al Qaida-affiliated rebel group.
At least 10 people died and dozens were wounded over the weekend in Tripoli, the predominately Sunni Muslim city that’s Lebanon’s second largest. The city has seen violence before between poor Sunni neighborhoods that are sympathetic to the rebels and a small enclave of Alawites who support Assad, but the weekend’s fighting was especially bloody and left the city shuttered Monday.
“The guys (on both sides) have gone insane,” a resident said by phone, asking that her name not be used in order to protect her family. “It’s not just (the usual) sniping, it’s rockets, mortars and grenades. Nobody in Tripoli slept Saturday or Sunday night.”
The fighting began Saturday after apparent Sunni gunmen wounded a municipal worker for being Alawite, the same Shiite-related brand of Islam that Assad follows. That attack was reportedly in revenge for this summer’s double bombing of Sunni mosques in Tripoli associated with the rebels, which killed scores of people and wounded hundreds and which many Sunnis and parts of the Lebanese government have blamed on the main Alawite Lebanese political party, the Arab Democratic Party.
An Alawite militia leader, Ali Eid, promised more fighting.
“If the fighting does not stop by (Tuesday) we will see something new that will destroy Tripoli,” he said. “We are capable of closing this city and burning it.”
The weekend fighting in Tripoli spread to nearby Akkar province as snipers and rocket-propelled grenade attacks on traffic closed the highway that connects the area to Syria. The Lebanese army announced that it would take steps to block access to Lebanon through the mountains along the border, to keep Islamist rebels out.
Meanwhile, a new militant group that claims to be formed of local volunteers declared that it would attack pro-Assad targets in northern Lebanon.
The Akkar Falcons – described in the local media as veterans of the fighting in Syria – said it had enlisted 600 Sunni fighters in Lebanon’s north to confront the Syrian regime’s Lebanese allies, led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. The group released no further information in its first announcement.
“I don’t know about them but I do know that we’re seeing more and more fighters entering here from Syria, and not just refugees,” the security official said. “These new fighters are starting to operate in Tripoli, Bekaa” – where thousands of Syrian refugees already are ensconced – “and in the Palestinian camps.”
Weekend fighting also broke out in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain el Hilweh, where Islamists with suspected al Qaida ties battled Palestinian factions responsible for the camp’s security. At least one man was killed and several wounded.
“There are new faces and Syrian voices in the camp,” Abu Mahmoud, a security official for the Fatah movement in the camp, said by phone. He asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre.
Ain el Hilweh was once home to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaida in Iraq – now renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – and it’s thought to be the base for the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which took credit for a double suicide bombing against the Iranian Embassy last month in Beirut.
Abu Mahmoud said the growing Islamist presence in the camp recalled the situation at the Nahr Bared camp in northern Lebanon, which exploded in 2007 into a three-month siege that took hundreds of lives and destroyed the camp after jihadists who’d fled the fighting in Iraq took control of the camp’s military facilities and attacked the Lebanese army.
“We are terrified of another Nahr Bared,” Abu Mahmoud said.
“We are very concerned about Ain Hilweh,” said a Hezbollah security official, who also spoke only on the condition that he not be identified. “If it turns very violent, that would cut the main highway to the south, and Hezbollah cannot allow that.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.