The scattered unofficial border crossings between Syria and the northern Lebanese region of Wadi Khaled have been treacherous since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began some eight months ago. But in recent weeks, many points have become impassable and even more deadly than before, according to residents on both sides of the border.
Directly across from Wadi Khaled is Qattinah Lake and, beyond that, the Syrian city of Homs – the country’s third-largest population center. Homs has also become the epicenter of the uprising in Syria, and earlier in recent days was the scene of intense street battles between the Syrian army and a loosely-organized armed dissident group made up of defected officers and soldiers who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. With entire neighborhoods under siege and near-constant shelling, the brewing humanitarian disaster has only been exacerbated.
Visiting Wadi Khaled several weeks ago, I met smugglers who made the journey from villages in Lebanon to Homs and the surrounding area several times a day, transporting food, cooking fuel and petrol, and other goods to areas most in need. Since then, the Syrian army has laid landmines, bulldozed river crossings, and stepped up night patrols in the area. There have been reports of members of the Free Syrian Army being abducted and taken back across the border. While this is disturbing on many levels, it is also not surprising. The Syrian army and intelligence services still hold sway in Lebanon, and can come and go across the border with near impunity. One of the more striking things a visitor to the area will likely notice is the total lack of an official Lebanese presence along the border. The first checkpoints are several miles inside Lebanon in what feels like an unofficial buffer zone. It is here that terrified Syrian refugees live in makeshift camps under tarps and in the abandoned shells of half-built homes.
Yesterday, I spoke with a Syrian man based in Wadi Khaled, whom I had met last month. He described one of his warehouses as “almost full” with the goods that he has been transporting into Homs for months. Before the latest assault on Homs, his stockpiles were constantly moving and at times even dwindled. Now, Syrian army bulldozers have all but rendered useless the ubiquitous Chinese motorbikes that smugglers use to cross the Kabir River. Landmines and snipers have severely limited foot traffic, both for refugees and smugglers.
For many here, it is now clear that Assad has no intention of implementing the Arab League’s peace proposal. Few people in the region take the Arab League seriously on any level, but the stipulation that foreign journalists be allowed into Syria at once was an important one, and slightly raised the hope that a clearer picture of events inside Syria would become available. But for now, the people of Homs are on their own, and the smugglers who help sustain the city will look for new ways of circumventing a determined, and increasingly brutal Syrian government crackdown.
Jeff is a Beirut-based journalist, where he primarily covers the Levant. He's lived and worked in the Middle East and North Africa, from Iraq to Egypt and the Gulf.