Seeking Refuge in Fortress Lebanon

Across the border, the Free Syrian Army has set up logistics bases, a communications center and stations for smuggling weapons.

Pictures on opposition websites show Free Syrian Army soldiers crossing a stream separating their country from northern Lebanon. They're carrying people wounded in the fighting in Syria. The destination is the Lebanese city of Tripoli, a bastion of Sunnis and Palestinians, where a field hospital has been set up to treat rebel casualties.

A reporter from the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar says that at the hospital, which lacks essential surgical equipment and drugs, the wounded are being treated by a veterinarian who has flown in from Saudi Arabia to help out.

Free Syrian Army gunman - Reuters - 08022012

The distance between Tripoli and the Syrian city of Homs where more than 300 people were slaughtered is about 80 kilometers on the main highway. But between the two cities is the Wadi Khaled area, right on the border, and civilians from Homs have been fleeing to the small villages there, most of them inhabited by Sunnis. Many refugees are joining the Free Syrian Army, which on the Lebanese side has set up logistics bases, a communications center and - most importantly - stations for smuggling weapons and ammunition.

The Lebanese government has ignored this area for decades. It's one of the country's poorest and most backward regions, and the people's main occupation has been smuggling goods between Syria and Lebanon. Now their expertise, in particular knowledge of good places to cross the border, is a strategic asset for the Free Syrian Army. In ordinary times, the locals smuggled television sets, food and spare parts. Now they're arms suppliers and guides for smuggling people out of Syria.

Enter Al-Qaida

The Syrian regime's militia, the Shabiha, is also very familiar with the area; before the rebellion, many of them made their living from the same smuggling on the Syrian side of the border. Now they want to prevent the smuggling of Free Syrian Army people, mine the border and strike at anyone trying to bring in weapons.

But the Wadi Khaled area in Syria is not only a zone between smugglers and supporters on either side of the battle. Drawn into this no-man's-land, where the Lebanese Army does not tread, are forces liable to divert the war elsewhere.

Reports by foreign and Lebanese journalists indicate that Al-Qaida activists see the war in Syria as a chance to establish a new operations base in that country, which has made sure to keep them out. Thus, for example, Al-Qaida people have traveled to Lebanon from Libya and Iraq and are already "surveying the territory and examining possibilities for starting to act against the Syrian regime," according to the Al-Akhbar reporter.

Other reports say scores of Lebanese jihadists are exacting "donations" in return for transferring people and goods. Radical religious preachers are finding religious rulings for the Free Syrian Army, thereby giving their operations the aura of a religious war. Free Syrian Army battalions are also adopting religious markers; for example, units named after heroes from Islam's early days.

The recruitment of defectors to the Free Syrian Army is based on religious and sectarian persuasion; the main message is war on "the Alawite heretics" who have denied the state its "true and correct" religion and marginalized Sunni believers.

The Christians wait and see

Will Syria become a new operations base for Al-Qaida, now that the group has been pushed out of Iraq? This threat is feared not only in the West but also in Syria, and equally in Lebanon, where a battle could develop between Hezbollah and its supporters on one side and Sunni radicals on the other.

The violent settling of accounts between the Sunnis, about 70 percent of Syria's population, and the Alawites, about 17 percent, is posing a difficult dilemma for the Christians, about 10 percent of the population. Most are waiting to see how things develop. They're keeping in mind Syrian President Bashar Assad's threat to the Christian leadership 10 months ago: "Support me or your people will suffer."

Some of the leaders, like the head of the Greek Catholic community, are vocally supporting the president. Others are keeping mum and are being criticized by the opposition for not joining the revolution.

Between Assad's threats and the opposition's criticism, the Christians fear that Syria will ultimately become a radical Sunni Muslim state that will settle accounts with them for having supported Assad and for not having joined the revolt. Assad, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, depicts himself as the only person who can prevent the breakup of Syria into regions and the transformation of the civil revolt into a civil war.

The fear that Syria will become a second Iraq is familiar to the United Nations, which is debating how to react to the events in Syria. When in the balance is the slight chance of establishing a democracy versus the danger of a sectarian war, no one is rushing to topple Assad.