For three weeks, Syria has painstakingly built up a large force ready to march into northern Lebanon and Tripoli, the second largest town in the country.
The entry of a Syrian military vanguard and troop build-up on the Lebanese border were first revealed by debkafile‘s military sources and later confirmed. Damascus first tried flat denial. When they could no longer deny the evidence of witnesses who found a 10,000-strong force too big to miss, the Syrians claimed it was there for maneuvers. When that didn’t wash, they tried claiming that it was there to fight smugglers and gunrunners.
But no maneuvers took place and police and custom officers were present on the border to deal with smugglers…
Syrian president Bashar Assad first began drumming up pretexts for his planned incursion of Lebanon two weeks ago, when Syrian diplomats warned Washington and Paris that he would no longer put up with the operations of extreme Islamic militias in northern Lebanon and Tripoli because they were a threat to Syrian national security. Both western governments easily saw through this mock protest.
Meanwhile, at dawn Monday, Sept. 22, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that the Syrians further augmented the force poised on the Lebanese border. Now, a full mechanized division is ranged between the Syrian town of Homs, 40 km from the Lebanese border, and Akkar province through which runs the Nahr al Kabir River which divides the two countries.
Command headquarters, at the small town of Nura, has arrayed the force in three lines: One third, just over 3,000 commando troops, are stretched across two kilometers of the border on the northern river bank and around the Obadiah border crossing; tanks, armored vehicles and artillery are aligned separately 1.5-3 km behind them inside Syria; the remaining 7,000 soldiers form the third line of the deployment.
A slow, stealthy infiltration may go unnoticed
According to our military sources, not all the commando units’ 12 vantage points up against the Lebanese border on the river bank have dug-in fortifications or even defense ditches. Some are just a few tents providing logistical services.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that the Syrian military command appears to believe this unusual arrangement will serve three purposes:
1. International attention will not be drawn to Damascus’ invasion of Lebanon if it is slow and stealthy. Small groups of soldiers in the front line will slip across the river’s bridges, whose span is more than 12-15 meters wide at any point, and gradually build a bridgehead for the main force.
2. This way, Israel will have no excuse for an air strike against the concentration.
3. The controversy within the leadership in Damascus over whether to go in and occupy northern Lebanon in force or control the territory from the outside will be set aside.
In case Assad believed his devious plans had gone unnoticed, the highest ranking Salafi authority in Lebanon, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, warned this week against an incursion by the Syrian army into north Lebanon, saying it would open 'the gates of hell and lead to what is similar to Iraq and its misery.”
A suspected example of Syria’s expertise in pulling Lebanon’s levers from afar was displayed in a bombing attack on a military bus in Tripoli Monday, Sept. 22, which killed seven people including four soldiers.
Lebanese sources trace the hand behind the attack to Damascus, a demonstration of one way in which Syria may try to hold northern Lebanon in thrall without full-scale occupation.
They claim that the Fatah al-Islam extremist Sunni group, whose revolt the Lebanese military put down last year, has, or had, links to Syrian intelligence.
A long Lebanese reckoning with the targeted Syrian brigadier
Five days later, on Sept 27, a suicide car bombing near Damascus – the worst terrorist incident Syria has suffered in two decades – left 17 dead. Syrian officials blamed a “Takfiri” group – official jargon in Damascus for al Qaeda. They hinted the bombers had come from Iraq.
But our Lebanese and Middle East analysts are convinced that Damascus was treated to a dose of its own medicine. This theory is supported by the identity of two victims, named by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources as Brig. Gen. Abd Al-Karim Abbas, a top official in the Syrian Military Intelligence, and his son Ahmad.
Our sources recall the dead brigadier’s name from the list of senior Syrian suspects interrogated last year by the United Nations' tribunal investigating former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri's assassination in 2005.
Before his death, Abbas officiated as deputy director of Syrian Military Intelligence’s Palestinian Division, which covers Damascus’ military and intelligence ties with Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Jihad Islami. But under cover, he was responsible for Syria’s covert operations inside Lebanon.
The bomb car blew up on the Damascus highway to the international airport at the precise point, according to our sources, where two Syrian security installations were situated: the reconnaissance division of Syrian intelligence, which runs domestic intelligence operations and the command center of the Palestinian Division.
It was parked beside the fence of the Palestinian command center. When Abbas arrived for work with his son, it was detonated by remote control. The 200 kilo-bomb was powerful enough to flatten all eight meters of the perimeter wall. He did not have the slightest chance of escaping alive.
The perpetrators had marked out the Syrian officer whom they held responsible for the Tripoli bus attack five days earlier. They believed he had also set up the undercover and intelligence foundations for Syria’s occupation of North Lebanon.