The Lebanese army seized a ship last weekend carrying three containers filled with weapons reportedly intended for Syria's rebel fighters. Although Lebanon has remained relatively stable throughout the sustained violence next door in Syria, this discovery is the most recent reminder that the country is far from immune to the unrest plaguing its neighbour.The Basher Assad government in Syria has often complained of arms being smuggled into Syria from neighbouring countries, and since the inception of the uprising little over a year ago there have been a number of weapons shipments intercepted in Lebanon. The smuggling routes across the notoriously porous border between the two countries are now being used to move weapons and supplies into Syria and to provide passage for the fleeing refugees and injured fighters.
'I'm going to see my army,' said Zaki while waiting in a safe house just inside the Lebanese side of the border. His family are from Hama and Homs, hotbeds of the Syrian opposition. They were exiled in 1981 during the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by former president Hafez al-Assad.
They now have a successful trading company in Saudi Arabia and, according to Zaki, 'are transferring money to people (in Lebanon) and they send the money to the revolutionary people to buys guns.'
He claimed they have been sending 100,000 dollars every month for the past eight months to opposition fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He said his father had sent him to make sure the money was providing the fighters with the weapons they expected. 'The Saudi government does not want to stop anyone who works like this. They are covering us. They want us to work without talking,' he said.
The funding and arming of the FSA has been a divisive issue among the countries within the international community supporting the uprising. While there has been no inter-governmental agreement to overtly arm the fighters, after the last ‘Friends of Syria' meeting in early April, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states reportedly committed to establishing a multi million-dollar fund to pay members of the FSA.
A Syrian activist, who smuggles humanitarian supplies and refugees between the two countries, complained that certain gangs trading arms within Lebanon were exploiting the Syrian uprising to boost their profits.
Speaking on condition of anonymity he said, 'Some merchants are trying to create their markets inside of Homs by getting certain groups to buy their weapons and create war. We have a problem with them. It is known now that those merchants are creating a small war for their market.'
The increased demand, whether it is for the revolutionaries in Syria or militias in Lebanon, has caused prices to rise sharply. The same activist said a Kalashnikov rifle now fetched around 2,000 dollars whereas the pre-revolution price tag would have been closer to 200 to 300 dollars. 'You could spend 25-30,000 dollars just on providing munitions to a single checkpoint,' he calculated.
As well as weapons being smuggled from sea before being sent overland to Syria, there have been reports of weapons being stolen and sold from within the Lebanese army.
In early April the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that an intelligence officer who was in charge of a weapons depot had been detained for questioning on suspicion of stealing and selling arms. That same week at the safe house on the border, Zaki said, 'The (arms dealers) are selling from Lebanon, some even thieve from the Lebanese army and others are importing to Lebanon.'
In addition to the flow of arms across the border there is a steady stream of people, with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimating there are 24,000 displaced Syrians who have made the journey to seek sanctuary in Lebanon. Along with the civilians fleeing in search of safety, fighters regularly cross the border.
The traffic of fighters has predominantly been Syrian combatants. But recent reports suggest some Lebanese are now making the journey to join the revolution. Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at American university of Beirut, said, 'Like what happened in Iraq, parts of Syria are now becoming a land for jihad…The Syrians are responding by crossing the border and opening fire. There is a low intensity conflict on the border between Syria and Lebanon but I don't see it developing into a major confrontation.'
Tripoli in north Lebanon is a conservative Sunni city that has close societal, familial and historical ties with the communities in western Syria revolting against the Assad regime. Sheikh Mazen al-Mohammad is a leading religious figure in the city and has been at the forefront of the regular demonstrations in support of the Syrian uprising.
He denies recent media reports claiming he said he has sent religiously inspired fighters, or mujahideen, to Syria but added, 'If these international efforts we see fail in helping our brothers in Syria, and they request us to help them to victory then we will do it, whatever the consequences.'
Syria enjoyed a strong military presence in Lebanon from 1976 until 2005, and many of the Sunni communities, especially in the north, harbour strong resentment over their treatment during this time. Sheikh Mazen al-Muhammad said, 'The Sunnis in Lebanon, because of their suffering at the hands of the Syrian regime, can understand the position of the Syrian revolution more than anyone in the Arab World… When this uprising began in Syria the wounds were opened afresh here.'
The fragile balancing act played by Lebanon's politicians and sectarian leaders has so far kept the nation aloft from the violence next door. However, Lebanon is intrinsically connected to Syria, and its sectarian and political tensions have been tangibly exacerbated by the uprising there.
The thriving trade in weapons and potential militarisation of certain communities does little to allay fears of renewed civil strife in Lebanon if the Syria crisis deteriorates further.