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Arsal on high alert as border battles close in

File - Lebanese fighters, supporters of Hezbollah, take positions in the Syrian border town of Zeita, 5 km from the Lebanese northeastern village of al-Qasr, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (The Daily Star/Rakan al-Fakih)

HERMEL, Lebanon: Residents of the northeastern town of Arsal are growing increasingly worried about their safety as a battle between Hezbollah and members of the Syrian opposition edges ever closer to the town.

Since July 12, Hezbollah fighters, backed by Syrian aerial and ground bombardment targeting rebel hideouts in the mountainous outskirts of Arsal, have engaged in fierce fighting with members of the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army as part of the resistance party’s attempts to root out rebel groups from border areas with Lebanon.

Residents of Arsal, which is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, are concerned about the repercussions of the ongoing battles on their security and stability.

In particular, they fear that Hezbollah would again erect checkpoints on some of the roads leading to the town, after the party removed them in spring as the Lebanese Army implemented its security plan in the area. The checkpoints aimed at preventing the entry of rigged cars through Arsal to areas of Lebanon associated with Hezbollah.

Mohammad Hujeiri, one of Arsal’s residents, said he was worried about Hezbollah trying to take revenge against the town after the party’s media outlets accused locals of helping Syrian rebels, a large number of whom are deployed on the town’s mountainous outskirts.

Dr. Kassem al-Zein, a Syrian providing medical relief to refugees in Arsal, said the residents of the predominantly Sunni town had been threatened by Hezbollah supporters in the nearby town of Labweh.

“Some Hezbollah members are saying that after they’re done fighting on outskirts of Arsal, they will enter the town.”

Several other Syrians of Arsal said they too had heard of the threats.

Other residents said brutal attacks by Nusra Front members posed the greatest security threat. A number of incidents, including several executions and the torture of three teenage boys, have been blamed on the Al-Qaeda affiliated group.

Once vehement supporters of the Syrian revolution, the recent violence has caused some Arsalis to reconsider their positions.

There has been a “change in the attitudes of the town’s residents toward the events in Syria,” said Hassan Ezzedine, an Arsal native. He cited “executions of a number of Arsal’s residents and [Syrian] refugees, lootings, settlement of accounts, killings, and thefts ... carried out by some Syrian opposition groups” as the reason.

He added that these acts have heightened fears among Arsal’s residents and raised questions about the relationship between the local Lebanese residents – who number approximately 50,000 – and the 100,000 Syrian refugees in the town.

Haytham, a Syrian who works for a humanitarian organization in Arsal, said refugees in the town were concerned by the encroaching battle. “If something happens in the town, where would we go?” he asked.

Politically moderate Free Syrian Army members are now fighting alongside the Nusra Front in the outskirts of Arsal, an FSA commander who requested anonymity said.

The commander, whose family lives in a half-constructed building in Arsal, said people were growing increasingly concerned that the battle would reach the town. “The situation is very tense,” he said.

Many other rebel fighters also live in the town.

Haytham, who claimed he was arrested and beaten by the Lebanese Army before being released, said he feared that Lebanese authorities would use the fighting as an excuse to indiscriminately round up Syrian refugees in Arsal.

Bakr Hujeiri, the Future Movement coordinator in Arsal, said the townspeople have been very cooperative with security forces concerning reports about Islamist sleeper cells, suspected car bombs or the presence of terrorist groups in Arsal.

“For more than two years, we have been living in an abnormal situation as a result of the unjust accusations leveled at Arsal. We have worked hard in order not to involve the town in the Syrian conflict or in fighting here and there in which we have no interest,” Hujeiri said.

“Now, the situation is open to all eventualities because what is happening in Arsal is not limited to Arsal and the border with Qalamoun. Things are inter-related from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. If there is a [military] strike in one area, the region is shaken,” he added.

Similarly, residents in Shiite villages in the northern Bekaa region near the border with Syria are worried that the fighting between Hezbollah and Syrian rebel groups could jeopardize their safety.

They are particularly worried about the military strength of Syrian opposition groups in the Qalamoun mountains and Arsal’s outskirts.

Mustafa Houri from Labweh, a predominantly-Shiite town neighboring the mainly Sunni Arsal, warned of sectarian strife.

The current battle raging on the outskirts of Arsal is a “prelude to launching a sectarian war against Hezbollah,” Houri claimed. At least seven Hezbollah members have died near Arsal in recent days.

Security sources told The Daily Star that heavy fighting raged through Thursday night between Hezbollah fighters and Nusra Front gunmen along the northeastern border between Lebanon and Syria.

They said the clashes with automatic machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and Grad rockets dwindled during the day Friday.

The Syrian army unleashed rocket salvoes on rebel pockets as warplanes provided aerial cover for Hezbollah fighters working to cut off supply routes from Arsal, the sources added.

Houri said the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was present in Arsal, something that residents strongly deny.

The FSA commander, however, noted that some fighters in Qalamoun have defected and pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Casualties, both civilian and combatant, have been streaming into to Arsal medical centers in recent days.

Dr. Bilal, a Syrian doctor, said 34 wounded had been treated at the hospital he manages over the past five days alone. – Additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2014, on page 2.

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Summary

Residents of the northeastern town of Arsal are growing increasingly worried about their safety as a battle between Hezbollah and members of the Syrian opposition edges ever closer to the town.

Since July 12, Hezbollah fighters, backed by Syrian aerial and ground bombardment targeting rebel hideouts in the mountainous outskirts of Arsal, have engaged in fierce fighting with members of the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army as part of the resistance party's attempts to root out rebel groups from border areas with Lebanon.

Mohammad Hujeiri, one of Arsal's residents, said he was worried about Hezbollah trying to take revenge against the town after the party's media outlets accused locals of helping Syrian rebels, a large number of whom are deployed on the town's mountainous outskirts.

Dr. Kassem al-Zein, a Syrian providing medical relief to refugees in Arsal, said the residents of the predominantly Sunni town had been threatened by Hezbollah supporters in the nearby town of Labweh.

Many other rebel fighters also live in the town.

Similarly, residents in Shiite villages in the northern Bekaa region near the border with Syria are worried that the fighting between Hezbollah and Syrian rebel groups could jeopardize their safety.


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