Some 10,000 Syrian troops have been deployed along Syria's northern border with Lebanon, and Syrian President Bashar al Assad even attended a major military drill in the border area on Sept. 22. It is unclear whether Syria simply wants to pressure Saudi Arabia to concede influence in Lebanon, or if it actually intends to move forces into the country. In any case, instability in northern Lebanon is Syria's most immediate objective.
Lebanese politicians are growing nervous at the sight of a major Syrian troop buildup along the northern Lebanese-Syrian border. According to a Sept. 23 report from Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal, approximately 10,000 Syrian troops have deployed along the northern border since the weekend. A source in the area told Stratfor that Syria has sent T-62 main battle tanks and mechanized infantry into the area, and that infantrymen have been spotted erecting tents near the border. With Tripoli less than 30 miles by road from Lebanon's northern border with Syria, Syrian forces are just a short drive from Lebanon's second-largest city.
Heightening Beirut's fears, the Syrian military conducted a major drill Sept. 22 along the border that was attended by Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
The Syrians are claiming that the military buildup is simply intended to crack down on rampant drug smuggling and criminal activity across the border. This is not a very convincing argument. An army does not deploy tanks to fight smugglers, and most smugglers along the Lebanese-Syrian border are active to the east, in the central part of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains -- not in the north, where the current buildup is occurring. Using 10,000 troops to curtail the activity of smugglers makes no tactical sense.
The Syrians have a special anti-smuggling force, the Hajjanah troops, which are a camel-mounted special border unit well-suited to the rugged mountain area between Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, Syrian authorities actually encourage smuggling into Syria, because it allows imported smuggled goods to be paid for in Syrian currency.
The Syrians have something much bigger in mind regarding their western neighbor. Ever since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri that forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon, the Syrian regime has been slowly and steadily rebuilding its political, economic and security presence in Lebanon. Nearly three-and-a-half years after the Hariri assassination, Lebanon is once again swarming with Syrian intelligence officers carrying out Damascus' bid to reclaim hegemony over Lebanon.
Syria apparently intends to carry out this objective by first destabilizing the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which Stratfor pointed to in a 2007 analysis as the next likely flashpoint between Syria and Saudi Arabia as they vie for control over Lebanon. Tripoli has witnessed a spate of attacks mainly between the Syrian-backed Syrian Nationalist and Socialist Party and the Saudi-backed Future Trend movement led by Hariri clansmen, who are essentially operating as proxies in a Syrian-Saudi battle for influence in Lebanon. Though these two Lebanese factions agreed to a tentative cease-fire in September, Syria is now planning to break this peace, creating instability and a justification for Syria to intervene militarily in northern Lebanon.
A reliable security source in Lebanon claims that a group of Syrian intelligence officers who entered northern Lebanon in the past week have been meeting with their local Lebanese agents in the Qubba sector of Tripoli. Their primary objective is to instigate clashes between the Sunnis and the Alawites that would bring instability to the Lebanese north in the weeks ahead.
Whether Syria simply intends to pressure Saudi Arabia to concede influence in Lebanon or actually intends to move forces into the country remains to be seen. But with Israeli-Syrian peace talks currently in flux because of political chaos in Israel, it appears that the Syrians are moving toward taking matters into their own hands to achieve the geopolitical objective of reasserting physical control over Lebanon.