Longtime fighter Mustapha explains to the first Western reporter to visit his Bekaa Valley orchard camp how he is preparing eager Lebanese to take up arms against the Assad regime.
Mustapha ducks beneath a nectarine tree, its branches heavy with unripe green fruit, and indicates a shallow valley to the west just beyond the orchard.
“That’s where we practice with rifles,” he says. “There’s no one around here to disturb us.”
Mustapha is a veteran of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war who is using his past military experience to train dozens of Lebanese volunteers eager to cross the nearby border with Syria to join the armed opposition against the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
According to Mustapha and other Lebanese affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the main armed rebel group in Syria, some 300 Lebanese Sunnis from the northernBekaa Valley area alone have taken up arms against the Assad regime in the past year. Most of them have joined FSA brigades in the area of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.
The Lebanese recruits are not the only non-Syrians to volunteer for the struggle against the Assad regime, the FSA volunteers say. Other foreign fighters include Jordanians, Tunisians,Algerians, and Saudis.
Their presence underlines the sectarian nature of the increasingly violent uprising, effectively turning the country into a new theater of jihad pitting a predominantly Sunni opposition against an entrenched regime elite drawn mainly from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“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,” says Khaled, a portly Lebanese fighter from the Bekaa Valley who joined the FSA a year ago after being trained by Mustapha. Sporting a thick beard and black turban, Khaled arrived at a remote two-room safe house near Qaa less than an hour earlier having traveled along FSA-controlled routes from Homs, 20 miles north of the border with Lebanon, where he is based.
'A jihad for righteousness'
Lebanese volunteers for the anti-Assad struggle in Syria are motivated not only by religious obligation, but also from a deep-rooted sense of anger and frustration with what they regard as several years of humiliation and disenfranchisement within Lebanon’s political system. In particular, they blame Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in the country and the dominant influence in the Lebanese government, which is backed by Damascus.
A series of events that rankled Sunnis in recent years culminated in January 2011 with Hezbollah helping to engineer the downfall of a government headed by Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, Lebanon’s top Sunni political organization – a move his supporters decried as a “coup.” Mr. Hariri has lived abroad since April 2011. Recent developments suggest that the vacuum in Sunni leadership could be filled by more radical elements emerging from the Sunni street.
Two weeks ago, Lebanon was rocked by the worst violence in four years when Sunnis demonstrated against the arrest of a Sunni Islamist activist and the fatal shooting of a Sunni cleric by Lebanese soldiers. At least 12 people died in a week of violence. The fact that Mustapha and Khaled were willing to discuss the previously undisclosed military training activities and volunteering for the FSA underlines the bitterness felt by many Lebanese Sunnis. But both of them spoke on condition their real names would not be used, nor their villages revealed, due to the sensitive security environment in Lebanon.