ARSAL, Lebanon: The sun had not yet risen when the Lebanese Army swooped into a refugee camp in Arsal last week. By daybreak, five Syrian men had been hauled away in tanks and accused of being part of a terrorist network. The men, identified as Syrian nationals Nour Chamseddine, Zaher al-Ahmad, Mohammad Ghannoum, Haytham Ghannoum and Ayman Ghannoum were detained in the informal settlement known as Bunyan al-Marsous early Friday morning.
Disparate reactions to the raid highlight growing tensions in Arsal, particularly between locals, who number around 35,000, and over 50,000 Syrian refugees, who have settled in the town.
One out of the five arrested was released by the Army, and recounted his ordeal to The Daily Star, requesting his identity not be disclosed.
With sores on his wrists three days after his release, the young man said he was asleep when the Army came to his door that morning.
“We were tied up,” he said. “When they [untied] us, they told us to take our shirts off, and they started hitting us. They used sticks and electric cables, [accusing us] of being terrorists.”
The young man said he was released because he was the only one with a legal entry permit.
The four men remain in custody, held on suspicion of “training with terrorist groups” according to the authorities. The Army claims that laptops and cameras found in the sweep prove the men were training with a terrorist group.
Three days before the raid in Arsal, the Islamic group the Nusra Front, which is fighting the Syrian regime, entered a refugee camp near the town, reportedly killing one man, injuring another and taking yet another hostage. The Lebanese Army’s descent into the refugee camp was, according to security sources, intended to thwart Islamic militants from further violence in the Lebanese-Syrian border town.
Arsal’s mayor, Ali Mohammad Hujeiri, said the Army Command called him before the predawn raid, but did not share any intelligence with him before rounding up the suspects. “The Army raided the wrong camp,” he claimed.
While more moderate Free Syrian Army fighters are known to roam the hills surrounding Arsal and receive treatment at local hospitals, Hujeiri said he was concerned about the possibility of Islamic groups gaining strength in the town’s outskirts. “I’m worried that the rise of Syria and Iraq will spill over into Lebanon,” he told The Daily Star.
Some locals in Arsal, such as education coordinator Merhi Fliti, supported the raids, and have called for the Army to boost its presence in the town. Fliti said the Army was the town’s sole bulwark against Syrian fighters who regularly move between the town and the refugee camps in the area’s outskirts.
“There around 52 [refugee] camps in Arsal, and we think it’s time for the Army to go through them all,” he added. “The Army’s presence is very important in Arsal,” he said, adding that he feared the Nusra Front and other extremist groups would spread in the outskirts of the town.
For Dr. Kassem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor who runs a field hospital in Arsal that typically caters to Syrian wounded and refugees, the raids were a mere show of force.
Claiming to know the five arrested men intimately as his patients, Zein said none had a history of fighting with the opposition, as the Army had reported.
“Nour Chamseddine was a patient of mine, he has colitis and hypertension, and moreover he can’t carry heavy things,” he added. “He isn’t capable of holding a gun, let along fighting.”
Some say that if the raids go on, armed Syrian elements in the region would retaliate against the Army.
Abu Khaled, a grizzled Free Syrian Army fighter, denied that there were any Islamic terrorists in or around Arsal. He did not deny, however, that armed FSA gunmen were positioned in the surrounding hills.
“The raids might provoke a reaction,” he said. “If Hezbollah gave itself the right to intervene in Syria, the FSA believes that we have the right to intervene in Lebanon.”
The Army’s spokesperson could not confirm that ISIS or Nusra elements were present in Arsal.
“We are conducting raids and looking for arms and gunmen. Every time we find them in Arsal we arrest them, like in any other area of Lebanon,” the spokesperon said.