MENJEZ, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army has begun building a series of fortified watchtowers fitted with surveillance cameras along the country’s northern border, an unprecedented step intended to allow better control of a frontier buffeted by the Syrian conflict.
The Daily Star has learned that four towers will be constructed on the volatile border initially, and if the scheme is successful further ones could be erected elsewhere along the frontier.
But the Army will have to convince potentially suspicious and skeptical local residents – some of whom actively support Syrian rebels – as well as the Syrian army, that the observation towers do not pose a threat to either side but are there to reinforce the Army’s presence in the north and help it better monitor the border.
The four towers are located in hills or promontories in Mqaibleh allowing views across Wadi Khaled to the north, Shadra, Menjez and Abboudieh, the latter three overlooking the Kabir River valley that marks the border.
A fifth tower will be erected at the Hamat air base and army training facility. Troops will undergo a two-week training course on the tower at Hamat before deploying along the border.
Each tower will be constructed from six stacked shipping containers with the lower levels surrounded by Hesco blast barriers.
The observation room at the top of the approximately 10-meter high tower will be protected by bulletproof glass and surrounded by anti-missile fencing. A bomb shelter constructed from sandbags and Hesco barriers at the foot of the tower will provide additional protection.
Surveillance of the border will be conducted by sophisticated remote control long-range cameras equipped with night vision allowing clear resolution images up to 20 km away. All video footage is recorded and may be monitored from an operations room on the ground floor of the tower.
The project began last year when Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi requested assistance from the British Embassy to help the army better control the northern border.
The rebel Free Syrian Army operates in some parts of this area, using Lebanese territory as a safe haven to rest, resupply and launch operations against Syrian forces.
In return, the Syrian army regularly shells the Kabir River valley and the edges of nearby villages, partly to deter militants from slipping across the river and partly to punish the local population for supporting the rebels.
Lebanese troops posted in the area have been powerless to intervene and have occasionally come under shellfire.
The British suggested to Kahwagi that that the Lebanese Army build fortified observation towers modeled on the British army’s “Sangars,” which have been used in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The British government has a military assistance program with the Lebanese Army, providing training and equipment. During a visit to Beirut last week, British Foreign Minister William Hague announced that the program would be increased, with some 2,000 Lebanese troops being trained in the coming year.
“How Lebanon weathers the regional storm depends to an increasing extent on its Army,” said Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador.
“Construction of watchtowers on the border is a sign of how serious the threat of the Syria contagion has become, and demonstrates real intent to keep Lebanon out of the quagmire.” The Lebanese Army was unavailable for comment.
Construction on the first observation tower began this week at a small army base on the western edge of Menjez. A cement base for the tower has been prepared and soldiers were busy filling the Hesco containers with gravel. The post has a sweeping westward view down a lengthy stretch of the meandering Kabir River valley.
The need for protection for soldiers billeted along the border was demonstrated recently when a rocket fired from inside Syria struck a house beside the Menjez army post, spraying the position with shrapnel.
As the soldiers built the post, a pair of distant artillery explosions could be heard, later reported as shells striking the outskirts of Nourat at-Tahta, 4 km to the west.
It remains to be seen whether the towers will dampen the cross-border violence.
“It looks like this is going to be a long war,” said Rania Mikhael, a resident of Menjez, on being told that the observation tower was under construction. She said she supported the idea of watchtowers “100 percent.”
“I hope the towers can ease our fear. We always receive fire here. We had 16 shells hit the wadi behind us,” Mikhael said, indicating the Kabir valley that descends behind her home.
Standing on the roof of his house in Menjez, Joseph Elias indicated a road on a hill to the west near the village of Kwashra. He said that rebel fighters drove along the road last weekend and opened fire with machine guns at a Syrian army post on the other side of the river.
“The Syrian soldiers fired heavy machine guns at the cars. I could see the tracer rounds hitting their vehicles,” he said. “The rebels fire from here and the Syrians shoot back and we are in the middle.”
Another resident of Menjez, who declined to be identified, said he thought the watchtowers were “a joke.”
“There’s no political [order] to control the situation up here. If it’s true that these towers are being built, maybe Khaled Daher will come here and destroy them,” he joked, referring to the Future Movement MP who is a vocal supporter of the Syrian opposition.
In Abboudieh, a man who gave his name as Mohammad said his primary concern was not security, but the loss of business due to the lack of traffic passing through the border crossing in the village.
“We used to have people queuing here, but now it’s like a desert,” he said, sitting outside his barbershop. “The towers will reassure people, but if people continue to fire at Syria from this side of the border, it doesn’t matter what you put up, the Syrians will still shoot back.”