Al Monitor reports: While the Iraq-Syria border was witnessing the first armed confrontation pitting Sunni jihadists against Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, leaving scores of people dead, a wide stretch of border between Lebanon and Syria was the scene of direct and unprecedented contact between Shiite Hezbollah militants and Sunni jihadists belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra. This new and serious development is likely to have serious repercussions in the coming weeks. There are several theories about how this situation came to pass.
One week prior, amid sporadic clashes on both sides of the northeastern border of Lebanon and Syria, regular Syrian army forces had redeployed in al-Nabk, near the Lebanese border. Official Lebanese sources confirmed the event. On first glance, the redeployment would appear to be unremarkable given the movement of Syrian army units since the beginning of the civil war almost two years ago, but upon closer inspection, the seriousness of the maneuver becomes apparent.
The al-Nabk area stretches more than 45 kilometers along the border region. It starts to the west at the Jabal Akrum area of Akkar, north of Lebanon, and extends to Arsal, in the Bekaa to the east, along a strip of rugged mountainous land where the Lebanese state — including administrative authorities as well as security forces — has not had a presence for decades. What is more important about this strip from which the Syrian army withdrew is that it is now almost completely controlled by the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda and rebel fighting force. In addition, the adjacent Lebanese territory is inhabited by an overwhelmingly Shiite population, which points to Hezbollah having a dominant presence there.
Thus, after nearly two years of recurring tensions and sporadic clashes between conflicting and volatile components on both sides of the border, Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni Jabhat al-Nusra today stand face to face along a significant length of the Lebanese-Syrian border in the absence of a restrictive or deterrent force in the form of the Lebanese or Syrian state. Remarkably, this development resulted from a sudden redeployment by the Syrian army.
The army still has an effective presence west of al-Nabk, whose inhabitants are, demographically speaking, predominantly Sunni, rather than Shiite, Lebanese. It responds almost daily to incidents of infiltration by fundamentalist Sunni insurgents from Lebanon. The situation is similar further to the east in the central Bekaa, where the regular Syrian army is still deployed in the face of a Sunni Lebanese demographic, no more than 30 kilometers from the center Damascus. In short, the Syrian army remains deployed in areas adjacent to Sunni regions, but has strategically withdrawn from Lebanese Shiite villages, paving the way for Jabhat al-Nusra to fill the vacuum, putting it in direct conflict with Hezbollah members. [Continue reading…]