- - Sunday, January 22, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian dissidents based in Lebanon have stepped up efforts to help the opposition in their country by smuggling medicine, satellite phones, cameras and weapons into Syria - and refugees and injured fighters out.

From their safe houses in Beirut, Tripoli and the border village of Wadi Khaled, the dissidents remain in constant contact with activists inside Syria, as the bloody 10-month-old conflict devolves toward civil war.

“Because of the social media, because of the new ways to make a revolution, borders don’t matter anymore. We’re always in touch with the opposition inside. It’s a live community with an organic connection,” said “Mohammed,” a Syrian exile whose last name has been withheld to protect his safety.

“I could get myself smuggled back in, but I’m more useful here on this side because I help getting things inside.”

In Tripoli, the dissidents receive support from local associations such as Al-Bashaer, a Sunni group that openly opposes Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Al-Bashaer has donated clothes, medicine and money to hundreds of Syrian families in Tripoli, said Wassim Bashir, a spokesman for the group.

“We are as concerned as Syrians by the current situation,” Mr. Bashir said. “We have all suffered from this regime.”

Al-Bashaer also helps wounded Syrians smuggled across the border into Lebanon, he said, adding that one or two arrive every day.

The Lebanese government is aware of the smuggling activity, but officials refuse to acknowledge it publicly. The Lebanese government has set up a few checkpoints, but the army is too small to patrol effectively the 200-mile border with Syria.

Lebanon has long had a tense relationship with Syria, which occupied the country for nearly 30 years before leaving in 2005. Today, Syria and Iran exert influence through Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that dominates the Lebanese government.

One of the most active smuggling areas in Lebanon is the village of Wadi Khaled, nestled in hills about three miles from the Syrian border. Locals have long survived on agriculture and smuggling.

The trafficking usually has revolved around fuel and food, both cheaper on the Syrian side. But since the revolution started, shipments have changed. Now the black market in weapons is booming, and the prices of arms are skyrocketing, villagers say.

Assault rifles, shotguns and other weapons are sold to the Syria revolutionaries and smuggled into Syria on a regular basis. Since the outbreak of violence, the price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle has almost doubled to about $2,000, smugglers say.

Lebanese arms dealers sell their weapons to the highest bidders, and many now are Syrian revolutionaries who no longer believe in peaceful protests.

“We will prevail, not with the help of the international community but thanks to our own people and with guns,” said one Syrian dissident who identified himself only as Abdelhakim. “We will take our [freedom] back.”

Syria has reinforced security at the border by planting mines and posting additional troops. However, the Lebanese border remains porous, like Syria’s northern border with Turkey and southern border with Jordan.

Syrian opposition sources say they also are getting weapons from Turkey and Jordan.

The arms trafficking generally has been an ad hoc enterprise; but as the violence escalates in Syria, the trade is growing larger and more lucrative, locals say.

In the Syrian region around the restive city of Homs, the civil war already has begun, said Imane, a Syrian dissident who arrived in Wadi Khaled a month ago and whose husband is still in Homs. Imane, who declined to give her last name, said Homs is under siege with checkpoints and snipers posted throughout the city.

“They have divided Homs into two areas: Sunnis on one side, Alawites on the other, with tanks pointing at the Sunni side,” she said, referring to Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and Alawite Muslim minority.

As she spoke, sirens blared and Red Cross ambulances raced through the village to aid Syrian protesters injured in cross-border fire from Syrian soldiers.

The number of deadly shootings and injuries at the border has risen steadily in the past month as Syrian troops intensify their crackdown on defectors and refugees.

The exact casualty count is unknown, but at least six people were killed in the past four months on the Lebanese side of the border, activists say.

Despite the increasing violence, activists and refugees say they will continue to help those fighting the Syrian regime.

“We are like brothers. We are one family, and we want freedom,” Imane said.

The dissidents frequently communicate over the Internet.

“It’s safer,” Mohammed said. “Phones, well, we have learned to be careful with them: You never know who is listening.”

With his sneakers, denim jacket and baseball cap, Mohammed looks like any other Lebanese student hanging out in Hamra, one of Beirut’s trendiest neighborhoods.

But the Syrian exile constantly glances over his shoulder. He never takes off his cap or sunglasses.

He changes his address and phone numbers frequently. He takes only public transportation and usually avoids the district that is home to the Syrian Embassy and the headquarters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

“This area is Mukhabbarat’s territory,” he says, referring to the Syrian military intelligence service, as he scrutinizes the passing crowd.

In the past few months, Syrian activists taking refuge in Lebanon have become accustomed to living in fear - they worry about being beaten, kidnapped or deported.

According to the Syrian opposition, more than a dozen dissidents have been arrested or kidnapped here and sent back to Syria.

These “disappearances” have placed Syrian activists on high alert and prompted some to flee to Turkey or Egypt.

But Mohammed doesn’t want to leave Beirut.

As an activist working closely with the local coordination committees in Syria, he needs to stay as close to his country as possible. The Lebanese capital is just a two-hour drive from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Before the revolution started in Syria in March, Mohammed was a poet who wrote articles critical of the regime.

After the demonstrations in Damascus and Daraa began, he and two friends began documenting the protests and getting the information out of the country, he said.

They were soon discovered by Syrian secret services and fled to Lebanon.

“We had to move quickly,” he said. “That’s when we had this stupid idea to flee to Beirut to continue to feed the flow of information.

“But once we crossed the border, I was shocked: Here, the Lebanese are more afraid of the Syrian police that the Syrians themselves,” he said.

In Tripoli, Mohammed meets regularly with three other cyberactivists, all in their 20s, in a furnished safe house. They drink tea in their living room and work, using the usual “arsenal” of Arab Spring revolutionaries: cell phones, laptops, YouTube and Skype.