True||The Lebanese Army went on high alert Wednesday, bolstering its presence along the southeastern border in anticipation of fallout from intense battles in Syria near Mount Hermon.||
SHEBAA/BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army went on high alert Wednesday, bolstering its presence along the southeastern border in anticipation of fallout from intense battles in Syria near Mount Hermon.
Residents of Shebaa, a majority-Sunni town near Syria and Israeli-occupied territory, said they could hear the sounds of explosions and gunfire emanating from clashes between the Syrian regime and rebel forces in the southwestern area of Rif Dimashq, specifically in the border village of Beit Jin, which lies 20 kilometers from the Lebanese town.
In response, the Lebanese Army increased its presence along the border, concerned that the battles might push Syrians to seek refuge in Lebanon. “Just like we did in northern Bekaa, we have taken all precautionary measures in Shebaa,” said a high-ranking Army source.
The measures have halted any kind of cross-border movement between Beit Jin and Shebaa, said Walaa Saab, a nurse. Saab said she was in touch with civilians in the Syrian town who told her that to avoid bombardment they had sought temporary refuge in the mountains away from populated centers, but stopped short of attempting to cross into Lebanon. She said at least seven civilians have died in the fighting. “For the moment there is peace in Shebaa, but everyone is afraid of what tomorrow might bring,” she said.
Beit Jin is a Free Syrian Army stronghold surrounded by the Druze villages Erneh, Drubal, Hader and Harfa, some of which are vocally pro-regime. The threat of militants seeking safe passage into Shebaa was amplified after the Syrian regime, with military assistance from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, launched an offensive to weaken rebel battalions on Syria’s southern front in February.
The presence of the Nusra Front is minimal in Beit Jin and Qunaitra, but the militant group is known to have dispatched scouts to the area to secure a foothold there by approaching Druze leaders.
Residents are aware that if the regime emerges as the victor in the ongoing battles, defeated rebel battalions will have to choice but to retreat to Shebaa and surrounding areas to seek protection, a development that would put the southern border at risk.
But not all Shebaa residents are convinced that violence is imminent. Mustafa Nabaa, a local butcher, said he witnessed “around 50” Lebanese soldiers enter the town because of the intensifying battles next door, but said he believed reports of spillover from Syria were exaggerated. “I am here, and everything is calm,” he said.
Raja Hashem, another resident, said she witnessed soldiers entering the town in tanks, but said as of yet no new Syrian refugees had entered Shebaa. Shepherds in the area denied seeing any movement of refugees or militants around the border in recent days.
Hezbollah’s military wing is also on alert in areas stretching from Shebaa to Rashaya. Fighters well acquainted with the region carried out surveillance operations, on the lookout for militants fleeing battles with the intention of carving out new bases in secluded Lebanese territories along the porous border, a security source told The Daily Star.
The operations were carried out from caves found in the rugged landscape that separates Lebanon from the Golan Heights.
The source maintained that, unlike the northeastern town of Arsal, which was briefly overrun by militants last August, Hezbollah has good connections in Shebaa that were reinforced during the Israeli occupation and the July 2006 War.
Meanwhile, Shebaa’s municipality, which has struggled to manage its large refugee population, was on edge Wednesday, expecting another hefty influx of Syrians fleeing the violence, and expressed fears that militant “sleeper cells” might take advantage of the resultant chaos.
The town already hosts 5,500 refugees, according to the municipality, most of whom fled from Beit Jin and surrounding villages by scaling the slopes of Mount Hermon. – Additional reporting by Mazin Sidahmed