AL QAA/RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon: Disquiet is gradually trickling into the lives of the people residing in areas surrounding the embattled town of Arsal.
Gone are the halcyon days of tending to grape vines, said Zuzu Droubi, a jack-of-all-trades type who looks after orchards in the northern Bekaa Valley village of Ras Baalbek. By the end of the summer, his fruit is just ripe enough to be plucked and pressed into molasses.
Every year, Droubi, a tall and gangly character who always dons camouflage garb but has never enlisted in the military, prepares hundreds of jars of molasses and distributes them to neighboring villages to turn a profit.
But it is nearly September, and rather than tending to fruit, Droubi is sheltering in his farmhouse overlooking the mountains and listening to the thud of artillery fire from the other side, which signals to him that the clashes, which had abated after five days of fierce fighting in Arsal, have resumed.
“I can hear the strikes and bombings. The Army is moving,” he said. “And whenever soldiers mobilize, people get concerned.”
The renewal of the clashes, and the threat of more fighting to come, has led him to reflect on what he fears the most.
“I’m afraid of being the victim of an individual operation,” he said. “A kidnapping for ransom, or my company warehouse being destroyed.”
Others in Ras Baalbek, he said, are expressing a generalized fear of violent spillover.
For now, the presence of the Army reassures them, but they are still concerned, he said.
Despite the deployment of the 1st and 2nd Army land border regiments, there is little doubt that the Lebanese-Syrian border still remains porous.
As Lebanese Armed Forces expert Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained, it takes time to build a truly effective border regime between any two countries.
“A civil war makes the challenge that much more pervasive,” he said.
Both the border towns of Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa established local patrols to ward off potential militant threats last year, if only until the Army could step in and take control.
“The people are worried,” said Hisham al-Arja, the mayor of Ras Baalbek. “There are sensitive places along the border, but we feel safe because of the Army.”
Civilians, he added, did not know exactly where these “sensitive areas” lay. “Only the Army knows, and it’s the responsibility of the state to know.”
According to Nerguzian’s analysis, the events in Arsal have demonstrated that it is no longer easy for militants to cross into Lebanon.
“When the militants that attacked the town realized they were facing far stiffer resistance than anticipated, they tried to break north, to the town of Ras Baalbek, but unbeknown to them it seems, the Lebanese Armed Forces had already set up a large operating base and an observation post near the town,” he said.
“The presence of the fortification – which is very defensible and difficult for an attacking force to breach – deterred the militants, who it seems decided that heading back east was a safer course of action,” he added.
Had the militants moved across the frontier in small numbers, he explained, they would have risked detection by the nine sentry posts that have overlapping fields of vision. From these posts, it is possible to see for 20 km in all directions.
Had the militants carried their incursion further south of Arsal, they would have had to face Hezbollah’s training ground.
But there is no such thing as a perfectly secure border regime, and this is a cause for concern among the residents of towns near Arsal, including the mostly Christian Al-Qaa.
“The fear is in the minds of the people,” said the mayor of the town, Milad Rizk.
“ Al-Qaa is 20 kilometers away from where the clashes took place, and the problem is that what ISIS did [to Christians] in Iraq is reflected in people’s fears,” he added, referring to an ultimatum given by the group to Christians in Mosul to convert or face death.
“People are also worried that militants could take refuge in the camps [of Masharih al-Qaa] like they did in Arsal,” Rizk said.
In February, an Army Intelligence patrol apprehended a suspected leader of the Nusra Front, identified as Syrian national Nidal Sweidan, in Masharih al-Qaa, during a raid on a house in the border region.
“The situation is very bad,” said Al-Qaa’s mukhtar Samir Awad. “The town is in danger, and the situation is in a state of crisis. But we are resisting and we are present.
“The militants need only a half hour to get to our town.”
The town’s priest, Father Elian Nasrallah, was calm as he described how developments in Arsal made those around him “uncomfortable.”
“The mayor received some threats, and some churches too,” he added, as refugee women lined up outside his dispensary.
“At first we didn’t want to believe the threat was so near, but it’s important to be in control of the place where you live.”
Still, he said, the incidents should not compromise the town’s “hospitality” toward its 2,500 or so refugee families.
Amira, a mother of four from the mostly Shiite Ras al-Ain, was less placid. “They give us nightmares. They’re so close, just on the other side of the mountain,” she said.
“It’s impossible to live there during the winter months, and I’m afraid they’ll come to the city and rob us,” she added.
Her husband is a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, she said, and he has fought among their ranks. “But they don’t give weapons to everyone,” she said.
“In my house, the only thing I have to defend myself against the militants is a kitchen knife.”