HERMEL, Lebanon: The northeastern border with Syria was once porous but calm, with smugglers regularly ferrying food and fuel between the two countries. But now, the dynamics have changed: Fighters and weapons have replaced consumer goods as the hot commodities, and fighting erupts frequently in the once quiet border villages.
Across from Hermel and inside Syrian territory, a string of villages inhabited by Lebanese Shiites has been clashing with majority-Sunni villages that back the opposition in the countryside of Qusayr, on the outskirts of Homs. There have been a series of tit for tat kidnappings between the groups, and some have suggested that Hezbollah is providing military support to the Shiite villagers.
Hussein Solh, the Future Movement’s coordinator in northern Bekaa, pointed to the recent death of a Hezbollah commander and other members – reportedly in Syria – as an indication that “clear Iranian intervention in the Syrian crisis is making it hard for Hezbollah to keep hiding its role in protecting the regime.”
According to Solh, Hezbollah is “interfering directly and militarily in Qusayr ... under the pretext of protecting Shiite villages in the area.” He said that Hezbollah is also “playing a role” by deploying gunmen in the upper Brital villages of Tfeil and Maaraboun, adding that it also has men in Zabadani and Sarghaya, where there are regular clashes between the rebel Free Syrian Army and regime troops.
Hezbollah officials have repeatedly denied that the group has troops on the ground in Syria, but a report last week that three of its fighters, including commander Ali Hussein Nassif, were killed near Homs has prompted further speculation about its role in the fighting after officials neither confirmed nor denied the location of the deaths.
A source close to Hezbollah said that it has deployed in the Lebanese Shiite villages in an effort to protect residents. The source added that the 23 villages once housed 21,000 people, but only half remain; the rest were forced out or fled after death threats.
Most villagers are members of the Hamadeh, Jaafar and Zeaiter clans. The source added that rebel Syrian forces had displaced occupants in order to create a smuggling link between the Homs countryside to Wadi Khaled and north Lebanon, which tends to back the Syrian uprising.
According the source, this forced displacement prompted Hezbollah to confront the opposition with heavy force, driving the rebel Free Syrian Army to focus their smuggling on the space between Masharih al-Qaa and Upper Arsal.
A security source said that in this stretch, and approximately 1 km into Lebanon, FSA troops can move freely. They have no fixed base, and cross the borders frequently to carry out operations or move men and arms. The area befits these activities as it has heavy tree cover, the borders are not clearly demarcated and residents are generally supportive of their aims.
The Syrian regime has repeatedly requested that Lebanon secure its borders from smugglers since the beginning of Syria’s uprising nearly 19 months ago.
This source added that in the Homs countryside, Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition have 5,000 fighters each. Both sides have kidnapped members of their rivals, he continued, adding that there have been three rounds of fighting between the clusters of villages since September 2011. Sixteen people died in the first clash one year ago.
Ali Zeaiter heads a committee that is trying to reconcile residents of the Shiite and Sunni villages. He said that despite their recent disputes, the shared history of smuggling has engendered strong tribal, social and economic ties between residents.
Zeaiter’s committee managed to gain the release of some captives from both sides of the conflict, and eventually agreed on a truce that would have enabled unarmed locals to move between the villages.
Security and military developments in the area made the truce impossible to implement, however, and Zeaiter said it will not go into effect at least until all the hostages are freed.