KUWAIT - Lebanon’s foreign minister called on Arab countries on Monday to support the Lebanese army to counter fallout from Syria’s civil war, which he said threatened to tear the country apart.
Around 1 million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, a displacement that has strained public infrastructure and threatened to upset the sectarian balance.
This “is threatening the existence of Lebanon”, Gebran Bassil told reporters before a meeting of Arab League leaders in Kuwait on Tuesday.
“This would create a danger also to the whole (of) humanity, because if the Lebanese model would vanish, then a big clash is to be expected between civilisations, religions and all aspects or differences in the world,” he said, speaking English.
Power in Lebanon is split between Shias, Sunnis, Druze and Christian leaders - reflecting the mixed population - and many fear that Sunni refugees, who represent the majority in Syria, could disrupt the fragile demographic balance.
Communal tensions in Lebanon were stoked last week by the fall of the Syrian border town of Yabroud to Syrian government forces and their allies in the Lebanese Shia political and military movement Hezbollah.
The fighting prompted a chain reaction of car bomb and rocket attacks, roadblocks and protests along sectarian lines that took days to calm and revived memories of Lebanon’s own 1975-90 civil war.
Bassil, who became foreign minister in a cabinet formed last month, said a preparatory meeting with his Arab counterparts on Sunday discussed Syria’s conflict, now in its fourth year, the refugees and support for the Lebanese army.
“We hope that these decisions will be translated into reality by direct and tangible help and aid to Lebanon in backing the army, because thearmy of Lebanon is fighting terrorism for all the Arabs and all the world,” he said.
Bassil said the only way to protect Lebanon and its borders was to give additional support to the army. Saudi Arabia donated $3 billion to thearmy in December for upgrades and asked France to supply weapons using a large proportion of these funds. “We cannot live with new military camps, whether Syrians or others, inside Lebanon,” he said. “Support for the army is something real for facing this coming danger.”
Lebanon is already home to large camps for displaced Palestinians where state authority does not fully extend. Many Lebanese trace the origins of their own civil war to militarisation in the camps in the 1970s.
Lebanon’s military nowadays is religiously mixed but some Syrian rebels and Lebanese have accused it of being in thrall to Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to support President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shia-derived Alawite minority.
In a video posted online this week, influential Lebanese Sunni militant leader and cleric Ahmad al-Assir called for Sunnis to defect from thearmy. ID:nL5N0ML238]
Bassil is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party allied to Hezbollah in the country’s coalition government.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels seized the Kasab village and border crossing with Turkey Monday, an NGO said, as the regime launched fresh air strikes in a bid to halt the opposition advance.
The air raids come a day after a Syrian warplane was shot down by Ankara’s jets in an incident slammed as “flagrant aggression” by Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels and their jihadist ally Al-Nusra Front were now in full control of Kasab, the only border crossing with Turkey in sensitive Latakia province, President Bashar al-Assad’s heartland.
The crossing was the last functioning border post with Turkey to slip from regime control.
“The rebel fighters are in control of Kasab’s main square. There is fighting on the edges of Kasab, but the rebels are in control of the village” and border crossing, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, four days into a rebel offensive.
According to a security source in Damascus, however, the village has not fallen.
“The situation is unclear, the fighting continues, and neither side is in control of the village,” the source said.
The battle for Kasab, launched by rebels and Al-Nusra Front on Friday, killed at least 130 regime and opposition fighters on Saturday and Sunday alone, said the Observatory.
The rebel advance came despite Syria’s air force carrying out strikes and dropping barrel bombs Monday on their positions in the Kasab area and in nearby Jabal Turkman, said the Observatory.
The army also used tanks to shell the Kasab frontier post, said the Observatory.
- ‘Flagrant act of aggression’ -
Turkey on Sunday downed a Syrian warplane in what the Assad regime described as a “flagrant act of aggression”.
In a statement, the Turkish military said the plane breached its airspace by around one kilometre and flew over Turkey for another 1.5 kilometres.
It was the most serious incident involving Ankara and Damascus since Turkish warplanes last September downed a Syrian helicopter it said was two kilometres (a mile) inside its airspace.
Turkey, which backs the uprising against Assad and hosts more than 750,000 Syrian refugees, warned Damascus against testing its determination and pledged a tough response if Syrian warplanes violate its airspace again.
This is not the first time fighting has broken out in Latakia province, but rebel advances have generally been short-lived.
Speaking to AFP by phone from Latakia, an activist said the Turkish army’s downing of the plane had boosted the rebels’ offensive.
“It means that, unlike previous battles, the rebels’ backs are covered this time,” said Omar al-Jeblawi.
“The regime is very angry,” he added. “They are using all their force - army and paramilitary - to try to stop the rebels, who in turn are trying to advance towards the sea.”
Syrian state news agency SANA meanwhile said Hilal al-Assad, a relative of the president and commander of a pro-regime militia, had been killed in the fighting, along with seven of his men.
Most of Kasab’s majority Armenian residents have fled the village due to the fighting and air attacks, Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Kasab is the last remaining Armenian village in the Middle East, according to Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.
“It miraculously escaped the 1915 massacre,” Balanche told AFP.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, was falling apart.
After three years of civil war, Syria’s government now controls only nine of the 19 official land border crossings with its neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
Only one crossing into Turkey remains in government hands, but it is closed on the Turkish side.
More than 146,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and nearly half the population displaced.