ABBOUDIYEH, Lebanon – A few tents and trucks dotting a green hill across the river are about all that is visible of a Syrian troop deployment on Lebanon’s northern border — a buildup that has raised concerns of a possible Syrian incursion.
There was no sign Wednesday that the Syrian troops were preparing to cross the border. Syria says the deployment — first made public several weeks ago — is aimed at preventing smuggling from Lebanon.
But the United States and some anti-Syrian politicians in Beirut have warned that Syria could attempt an incursion, a concern raised especially after a Sept. 27 car bombing in Damascus killed 17 people.
In Washington, Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Wood on Monday said, “Any intervention by Syrian troops into Lebanon would be unacceptable.”
Syria’s secular government has said the Damascus bombers were Islamic militants who entered from another country, though it did not specify which. Syrian President Bashar Assad had warned days earlier that militants were setting up base in northern Lebanon and that they could threaten Syrian security.
Two days after the Damascus blast, suspected militants bombed a bus carrying Lebanese soldiers in the northern port city of Tripoli, killing seven people — the second such attack against the Lebanese military. But there was no immediate sign of a connection to the Damascus bombing, although also Islamic militants are suspected.
The head of the anti-Syrian bloc in parliament, Saad Hariri, rejected Assad’s claims of militants operating in northern Lebanon, saying the accusations and the Syrian deployment were part of a “series of intimidations against Lebanon.”
The lawmaker’s father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in a car bomb in 2005 that many in Lebanon blame on Syria. Damascus has denied involvement, but international pressure following the bombing caused Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon after occupying the country for nearly 30 years.
Hadi Hobeish, a lawmaker allied to Hariri representing the Akkar region bordering Syria, accused Damascus of “attempting to give the excuse that there are extremists in the north to return to Lebanon.”
Assad spoke to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Sunday, assuring him that the deployment is in line with U.N. resolutions calling on Syria to prevent smuggling and weapons traffic across the border, the Lebanese state news agency reported. Lebanon’s military said that it had been informed of the Syrian moves.
Lebanese press reports have said up to 10,000 troops are involved in the deployment, something Lebanese military officials have described as exaggerated and inaccurate.
A Syrian official said Wednesday that the country had deployed “a few hundred” soldiers to the border to prevent smuggling and the movement of “saboteurs.” It was the first confirmation of the deployment by Damascus mentioning specific troop figures.
The Syrian official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Since the initial deployment several weeks ago on the northern border near the Mediterranean coast, Syria has reportedly deployed more troops nearby in a stretch of about 30 miles inland in northeast Lebanon, according to Lebanese security officials.
The pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper has reported that the deployment included battle tanks and that troops dug trenches and blocked smuggling routes along the border with dirt mounds.
Syria’s opponents in Lebanon still accuse Damascus of trying to control their country despite withdrawing troops in 2005. But ties have improved considerably in recent months after Lebanon formed a unity government that includes Syria’s ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Syria has agreed to establish formal diplomatic ties with Lebanon for the first time since the countries’ creation in the 1940s and promised to officially delineate their borders, a longtime Lebanese demand.
Syria also views Lebanon’s new president favorably and many doubt it would undermine him with a military incursion.
In the small Lebanese village of Abboudiyeh across the border from the Syrian deployment, there was little sign of tension on Tuesday. Ten Syrian tents and seven trucks could be seen on the hills above the bridge crossing the Nahr el-Kabir, or Great River, which forms the border.
Abboudiyeh and other villages in the remote Akkar region of Lebanon rely on Syria for their living. Mobile phones in some parts of town connect to Syria’s network, since Lebanon’s is unavailable. Villagers regularly shop and use hospitals on the Syrian side because they are cheaper, and some students even go to school in nearby Syrian villages.
“There is nothing to worry about because nothing has really changed,” said Saleh Saleh, a 16-year-old whose house faces the new Syrian military positions. “They left (Lebanon), and they have no hope of returning,” he said.