ARSAL, Lebanon: The northeastern town of Arsal was still reeling from last week’s five-day clashes as officials arrived Monday to take stock of the damage inflicted during the fighting.
The fighting between Islamist militants and the Army, which began on Aug. 2 and was instigated by the arrest of the ISIS-linked Fajr al-Islam battalion leader Imad Jomaa, has damaged homes and numerous properties in the town, and will likely cost millions to repair.
As the cease-fire brokered by the Committee for Muslim Scholars came into effect to quell the fighting for now, the residents of Arsal returned to their homes to assess the damage inflicted after they were forced to leave.
The clashes also prompted Syrian refugees seeking shelter on the outskirts of Arsal to flee deep into the town. Some were lucky enough to escape in the early days of the fighting, but others were unable to leave the town amid the raging clashes.
Scorched cars still lie in the middle of the town’s streets alongside the remains of refugee camps destroyed by artillery fire, reminding returning residents of the vicious fighting that left 19 soldiers dead.
Gen. Mohammad Khair led a delegation of the High Relief Committee in a visit to Arsal Monday to assess the damage incurred during the clashes.
“We came here to inspect the situation in the town and assess the damage in order to draw up a plan to compensate residents as soon as possible,” Khair said after the meeting.
Khair, who met with Arsal’s Mayor Ali Hujeiri in the presence if Baalbek-Hermel Governor Bashir Khodor, explained that the committee would begin assessing the situation in the next 48 hours.
“[Arsal] is our village and our visit is meant to assess the situation in the field, tour the area for inspection and develop an aid program as soon as possible,” he said.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who returned to Lebanon after three years of self-imposed exile, announced Monday that he would donate $15 million for reconstruction efforts in Arsal.
Meanwhile, last week’s events have forced Arsalis, previously aligned with the Syrian opposition, to reconsider their stance.
A source in Arsal said the fact that some of the militants had sought shelter in the town’s refugee camps indicated that they did not appreciate the goodwill Arsalis had to offer. For many, now, the best solution to the refugee crisis is to establish camps outside Arsal and deploy the Army inside the town.
According to another source, while negotiations with militants were taking place, a group of residents had met with a Nusra Front leader in Qalamoun known as Abu Malek al-Taleh.
During the meeting, Taleh had expressed regret for what transpired in the town, where he said he had witnessed armed men hitting an old sheikh and forcing him to leave.
“We tried to fix the unjust actions taken by the Army toward Jomaa, but we committed a graver error by mistreating the residents of Arsal, who have helped many refugees,” the source said, quoting Taleh.
During the clashes militants also captured 20 members of the Internal Security Forces and 19 Army soldiers – some have been released but others are still being held.
The position of the old sheikh, who outright refused the presence of Syrian gunmen in his town, reflects that of the majority of Arsal’s residents. For instance, the source also said that the family of Sheikh Mustapha Hujeiri, who supported the armed groups and is believed to have played a key role in taking security personnel hostage, had condemned his stance.
Residents of the town expressed their solidarity with the Army by raising posters and banners. They also shared stories about the heroism of the Army’s airborne soldiers, who were monitoring the western side of the village.
The unit in particular played an important role in stopping the armed men in the outskirts of the town from entering and by protecting military positions.
Although the cease-fire has helped restore stability to the town, Arsal’s former Mayor Hussein Fliti believes the truce has turned Arsal into a center of contact for Syrian extremist groups. The latter remain just a few kilometers away from the town, where the Army has strengthen its positions, especially at the Wadi al-Raayan, Aqabat al-Jurd, Wadi Ata, Wadi al-Hosn, Wadi Hmayed and Masyada areas.
The Army has also erected a checkpoint in the Ain al-Shoueb area and its major entryway in the Al-Mehaneyah neighborhood.
This extensive Army presence is meant to prevent similar incidents from occurring, especially as there are an estimated 10,000 armed militants spread on the rugged outskirts of Arsal, which span 35 kilometers before reaching the Syrian frontier.
The presence of Syrians on the outskirts of Arsal is not expected to decrease, given its proximity to Syria. The presence of armed militants has also affected the ability of residents to harvest their crops.
Mohammad Ezeddine, who owns numerous cherry orchards on the town’s outskirts and who hasn’t been able to harvest this season because of the presence of armed militants in the area has asked that the Army expel them.
He is also hoping that the government will do its part to free up his orchard land.
Ezeddine asked that politicians support the Army and give them the green light to take necessary measures to preserve and maintain security and stability in the town, without making compromises.