QAA, Lebanon: Khaled had crossed the border from Syria less than an hour earlier, using routes controlled by armed Syrian rebels to reach the frontier from his base in Homs. Hidden inside a temporary two-room safe house in a remote area near Qaa, Khaled explained why he, a Sunni Lebanese from a village in the Bekaa Valley, had volunteered a year ago to join the Free Syrian Army, the main armed group fighting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad.
“Today there is a need for jihad in Syria, a jihad for righteousness. It is a religious duty to help our Muslim brothers in Syria,” he says, his portly frame sitting on the edge of a narrow bed. In his late 40s and sporting a thick beard and wearing a black turban, Khaled is one of an estimated 300 Lebanese from the Bekaa Valley who have joined the revolt against the Assad regime. Most of the volunteers have joined regular FSA brigades, but, according to Lebanese militants allied to the FSA, there is even one exclusively Lebanese armed unit numbering between 20 to 30 men who operate between the border and the Syrian town of Qusayr.
The militants say that other Arab nationals also are fighting alongside Syrian rebels, including citizens from Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The presence of non-Syrian Arab militants underlines how the steadily worsening violence and sectarian nature of the conflict is turning Syria into a new theater of jihad.
Khaled, who says he has fought in the Baba Amr and Khaldiyah districts of Homs, joined the anti-Assad struggle a year ago.
“It was hard at the beginning to join because it was a matter of trust. They [the FSA] kept me under watch for three months before they could fully trust me,” he said.
His son, he added with a hint of paternal pride, had been fighting for three months without a break.
“The sheikh he is fighting alongside tells me that he’s doing fine,” he said.
Khaled admitted having no former combat experience although he had previously served in the Lebanese Army. However, prior to departing for Syria, he received some basic training in weapons handling and guerrilla warfare skills at an ad hoc training camp in the northern Bekaa.
This small-scale and rudimentary military training program began in the wake of Hezbollah’s brief takeover of west Beirut in May 2008 in response to the then government’s decision to shut down the party’s private communications network. The move triggered a week of factional fighting that left over 100 dead, brought the country close to civil war and left many Sunnis harboring feelings of humiliation and resentment toward their Shiite opponents.
Mustapha, a former militia veteran of the civil war, said that following the May 2008 “events” he helped train a handful of secret “sleeper” cells in anticipation of future clashes with Hezbollah. But today, he added, all those he trains are volunteers for the armed struggle in Syria.
Mustapha said he waits until he has around 10 people who want to join the Syrian rebels and then takes them to an orchard where he delivers “classroom” lessons in basic military skills in a small farmhouse. The practical training, which includes learning how to plant roadside bombs and landmines, takes place afterward in rugged unpopulated areas of the Bekaa Valley.
Given the recent violence in the north Lebanon regions of Tripoli and Akkar, much scrutiny is being given to these volatile areas. But the northern Bekaa has the potential for far greater instability given the close proximity of villages and towns around Hermel in the Shiite-populated western flank of the valley where Hezbollah and the powerful clans predominate and the Sunni locales further east where residents actively assist the Syrian opposition by joining the armed struggle, smuggling weapons into Syria or helping settle Syrian refugees.
Indeed, the orchard where Mustapha conducts his periodic training of Sunni recruits is overlooked from the west by soaring mountains where Hezbollah trains its own cadres.
Lebanon has been fretting for over a year that the tensions in Syria would spill across the border. Yet, two weeks ago, the opposite occurred when tensions in Lebanon spilled into Syria with Shiite members of the powerful Jaafar clan clashing with FSA militants, some of whom were Lebanese Sunni volunteers.
The fighting was spurred by the abduction of three Lebanese Shiites, one of them a Jaafar, by the FSA and the retaliatory kidnapping of some 36 Syrians by the Jaafar clan.
“When they [the Jaafars] saw that most of them were unimportant people, they went back inside Syria and took three from the Free Syrian Army along with their jeep and a ‘Dushka’ [Russian 12.7mm machine gun],” said Rakan Jaafar, the mayor of the Shiite-populated village of Qaa beside the border with Syria. “That’s when the negotiations [for a prisoner swap] began.”
For now, the Shiite and Sunni residents of the northern Bekaa are eyeing each other warily and trying to avoid strife. But the tensions are palpable and only exacerbated by incidents of brief cross-border incursions by Syrian troops into Lebanese territory such as Tuesday’s incident in which one Lebanese was shot dead and four others wounded allegedly by Syrian soldiers in the wilderness between Arsal and Ras Baalbek.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” and have complained to the United Nations that Lebanon harbors “terrorist elements.” They additionally assert that Al-Qaeda was responsible for several devastating car bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo.
But Khaled insisted that there was no Al-Qaeda presence in Syria and that the foreign volunteers were simply devout Muslims engaged in jihad.
“If you took a picture of me holding a rifle in front of a black flag inscribed with ‘There is no God, but God’ and put it in a Western paper, everyone would say I am Al-Qaeda,” he said. “[But] I am a Muslim on jihad to defend Muslims. If the West cannot understand that and thinks I’m Al-Qaeda, then the West has a problem.”
Still, it is evident that much of the armed opposition has tapped deep into their religious roots, seeking inspiration and resolve through their Sunni identity. That sentiment meets with a receptive audience in Sunni-populated areas of Lebanon where feelings of anger, bitterness and marginalization continue to run deep. If there are truly some 300 Lebanese Sunni volunteers from just the Bekaa alone, how many others have joined the anti-Assad struggle from other parts of Lebanon?
Asked if he was aware of the training of Sunni militants in other areas, Mustapha said “Look, everyone is training. Them [Hezbollah and its allies] and us. Everyone is training.”