Sunday, Sept 14, 2008
Two Syrian commando battalions accompanied by reconnaissance and engineering corps units have crossed into Lebanon in the last 48 hours and taken up positions in seven villages, most of them Allawite Muslim, outside Tripoli, DEBKAfile’s military sources reported Saturday, Sept. 13. They are the vanguard of a large armored force poised on the border.
Damascus has signaled to Washington and Paris: Don’t interfere.
It is the largest Syrian force to invade Lebanon since Damascus was forced to end its occupation of the country in May 2005, three months after former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated.
Tripoli is Lebanon’s second-largest city, with half a million inhabitants, most of them Sunni Moslems but including large Christian and Alawite communities.
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The Syrian incursion coincided with the expected arrival of Russian naval and engineering experts for renovating Tartus, the Syrian port 40 kilometers north of Tripoli, to serve as the Russian fleet’s first permanent Mediterranean base. Bashar Assad clearly feels he can safely embark on a fresh foreign adventure to occupy northern Lebanon without fear of restraint.
According to DEBKAfile’s Washington and Paris sources, the US and French governments knew what was coming. Both had heard Damascus accusing the pro-Western Lebanese majority leader Saad Hariri and Saudi Arabia of sponsoring a bid by Muslim Salafite movements and radicals close to al Qaeda to set up a “Lebanese Kandahar” in Tripoli, in order to keep the Shiite Hizballah out. Israel was in the picture too.
During French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus last month, Bashar Assad said the West should understand that Syria could not accept a “jihadist base on its doorstep.”
DEBKAfile’s sources report this pretext for Syria’s blatant invasion of northern Lebanon is hardly likely to go down seriously. For five years, Assad provided al Qaeda and other radical Islamists a corridor through Syria to fight American troops in Iraq plus training facilities.
Seen from Israel, once Assad’s army completes its advance on Tripoli, he will control the full length of the military supply route for Hizballah from the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus. The Russian presence will add a new and troubling dimension to this development