BEIRUT: The eruption of clashes in Arsal over the weekend has thrust the tiny border town into the national spotlight, with long-brewing tensions there threatening to escalate into further violence. Arsal, a town 130 kilometers northeast of Beirut, has long been an important place for smugglers, due to its rocky terrain and the presence of unpaved roads connecting Lebanon and Syria.
Even before the Syrian civil war, smuggling routes contributed to Arsal’s local economy, with other economic support coming from local quarries, used to export limestone for architectural purposes, and the agricultural sector, which primarily grew fruits such as cherries and apricots.
The Bekaa Valley is known for tribal allegiances, and in Arsal, the Hojeiri, Fliti, Breidy and Rayad clans are among the largest.
Bordering the town is a 40 km stretch of land that has largely gone unpoliced since Syrian troops abandoned the frontier area after the start of the civil war in 2011. Whenever battles occurred on the Syrian side of the border, many opposition and Islamist groups fell back into the mountainous no-man’s-land between Syria and Arsal, a place of refuge until Hezbollah’s recent campaign to engage them there as well.
Before the current refugee crisis, Arsal’s population was estimated by officials at around 40,000 residents. Figures released by the U.N. Refugee Agency at the end of June put the official registered Syrian population at over 40,000, with unofficial estimates suggesting that figure could be as high as 100,000, placing enormous extra pressure on the town’s resources and infrastructure.
Arsal is a Sunni town surrounded by a couple of Christian and Shiite villages such as Labweh, Al-Ain and Maqneh. Arsal locals have always had warm and amicable ties with their neighbors. But relations with neighboring villages have deteriorated significantly since the start of the Syrian crisis. It is thought that this is due partly to clear sympathy among Arsal residents for opposition forces fighting in Syria.
This perception has been fueled by the fact that since the start of the civil war in Syria over three years ago, Syrian rebels have often taken refuge in the town in between stints fighting in the cross-border Qalamoun region against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. Arsal has also been accused of being the entry point for cars rigged with explosives that were used in a campaign of attacks against areas where Hezbollah enjoys support.
In the last few months, Hezbollah and militants – thought to be aligned with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front – have clashed outside the town. Arsal’s outskirts have also been regularly attacked by Syrian regime warplanes, resulting in casualties.
Until the weekend’s violence, the situation in Arsal had remained relatively calm, despite several incidents that had the potential to lead to greater conflict.
In February 2013, a botched Army operation to arrest Khaled Ahmad Hmayed – who was suspected of having links to the Syrian opposition and groups sympathetic with Al-Qaeda – led to deadly clashes that killed two Army soldiers, Pierre Bachaalany and Ibrahim Zahraman, in addition to Hmayed.
In August last year, residents from a neighboring village ambushed a car carrying Arsal residents, killing two and injuring the town’s mayor, in response to local tit-for-tat kidnappings. Kidnappings are not uncommon in the Bekaa Valley, but were usually aimed at extracting money from wealthy families, before the Syrian war brought a political element to the activity.
In March this year, brothers Sami and Omar al-Atrash, fugitives linked to car bombings that took place in Beirut’s southern suburbs, were killed in the border town during an Army raid.
In late April, an Army checkpoint near the town was ambushed, resulting in five soldiers’ being wounded.
In early June, Nusra Front members kidnapped and tortured three teens from the town, drawing widespread condemnation.
There have also been cases of armed clashes in Arsal among Syrians, of which one case in May led to the death of three Syrians.