ARSAL, Lebanon: A rough stony track that winds southeast of Arsal past quarries and through cherry orchards in a valley flanked by barren mountains is part of a lifeline for Syrian rebel fighters and refugees criss-crossing this remote and perilous section of the Lebanon-Syria border.
But the route, one of several tracks linking Arsal to a Syrian rebel-held area between Qastal and Qarah, could soon be closed and the border sealed following a widely expected offensive by the regime of Bashar Assad against a string of towns flanking the key highway between Damascus and Homs.
“The attack is coming soon. We are all expecting it and when it happens the people of Arsal will help defend our brothers in Syria, especially if Hezbollah is involved,” said Abu Omar, a Sunni resident of Arsal and a logistical supporter for Syrian rebel groups.
Over the past two years, the isolated town of Arsal has become an important logistical support hub for Syrian rebels operating in the Homs area and further south around Yabrud. The town’s population of 40,000 has almost doubled from the flood of Syrian refugees and rebel fighters who use Arsal to rest, plan and smuggle weapons.
The two-hour journey following mainly rutted dusty tracks from Arsal to the towns of Yabrud, Nabk, Qarah and Flita inside Syria is not without its dangers. Syria military helicopters and jets have struck farmhouses and vehicles along the route in Lebanon. Syrian helicopters Monday fired three rockets reportedly at militants outside Arsal. On Saturday, nine people were killed and another nine wounded when Syrian aircraft attacked a group of refugees gathered at an orchard near Khirbet Daoud, a farmstead 10 kilometers east of Arsal.
“I heard the explosion,” said Ahmad Hujairy, a farmer, referring to Saturday’s deadly airstrike. He pointed at the mountain skyline to the northeast. “The Syrian helicopters fly over my home all the time,” he said.
Hujairy’s tiny home is surrounded by lush green orchards of cherries, plums and apples. The dark green leaves are a stark contrast to the ochre-colored limestone mountains, pockmarked with caves, that shimmer in the searing midday sun. Few locations in Lebanon are more isolated, but even here Hujairy has felt the tremors of the war raging in Syria. A few months ago his home was attacked by a missile-firing Syrian helicopter.
“I ran out into the trees as the missiles exploded nearby,” he said. “I wish I had enough money to buy an anti-aircraft gun. I would shoot the helicopters down.”
A few vehicles bounce and jolt slowly along the track. Many of them are trucks carrying scrap metal, the detritus of war in Syria, which are left in large piles beside the track for sorting prior to selling. There is also a memento of an earlier conflict: a rectangular entrance to a long-abandoned vehicle-sized bunker sunk into the side of a mountain. It was built by the Palestine Liberation Organization decades ago to store weapons and ammunition smuggled in from Syria along the very same trails now used by Syrian militants to dispatch their own arms and supplies to the war against the Assad regime.
A few kilometers south of Hujairy’s farm, the rutted stony track is transformed into an asphalt road, marking Syria’s interpretation of where its border with Lebanon lies. Lebanese maps, however, locate Syria another 4 kilometers to the east, one of many cartographic frontier anomalies due to Lebanon and Syria never having properly delineated their joint border.
Until recently, it was possible to trek north of Arsal through the mountains to reach the Syrian town of Qusair and then on to Homs. But since Hezbollah and the Syrian army drove rebel forces from Qusair and the surrounding villages in early June, the logistical support route between Arsal and Homs has been effectively severed. Now, the only routes across the border are the stony tracks heading east and southeast from the town to reach Yabrud and Nabk and the Damascus-Homs highway.
Abu Omar said that the residents of Arsal are bracing for conflict with Hezbollah once the assault against the towns on the Damascus-Homs highway begins.
“We know Hezbollah will lead the attack and we are ready to fight,” he said, adding that he expected Sunnis from Tripoli, Beirut and Sidon to provide support. “We can defeat Hezbollah.”
Many Syrian residents of Qusair – fighters and civilians alike – fled to Arsal when the town fell on June 5. The Qusair battle and Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syria war has left an indelible imprint of fury and bitterness that has been manifested in four roadside bomb attacks since early June against suspected Hezbollah vehicles in the Bekaa Valley and a car bomb in Bir al-Abed last month.
“We will never make peace with Hezbollah,” Abu Mohammad, a Syrian rebel fighter from Qusair, said in a recent interview in Arsal.
“We will never forgive nor forget. They have killed our people. Even after Assad is gone, we will continue to go after the Party of the Devil. I would release four Alawite prisoners for the pleasure of killing one Shiite. They will remain our enemy forever.”
The Syrian army is close to recapturing Homs in its entirety, having seized the rebel-held district of Khaldieh last week. Once Homs is taken, the Assad regime can clear the remaining rebel pockets around Yabrud to consolidate its grip on a belt of territory running north from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.
However, if the Lebanon-Syria border is sealed by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies, it will leave thousands of angry Syrian militants and their Lebanese supporters bottled up in Arsal, potentially creating a pressure cooker situation.
Tensions are already running high between Arsal and its Shiite neighbors to the west, not just because they back opposing sides in Syria but because of a spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings. If Syrian militants and their Lebanese supporters are no longer able to slip from Arsal across the border to battle the Assad regime, they may well choose to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon instead.