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Lebanese in Syrian villages gear up

A Syrian flag flies over a border post near the Lebanese frontier.

MASRIYEH, Syria: The bearded man eagerly showed his Lebanese identity card and property deeds issued by Syrian authorities. As he crossed the narrow bridge into Lebanon, he explained that although Lebanon was his country of origin he considered Syria his real home, describing it as the “mother of all the poor.”

“We will not leave the land where we were born and where we work,” said Ali Mohammad al-Jamal, a resident of Farouqieh, a Syrian border village inhabited by Shiite Lebanese. “We will defend our village no matter what.”

“We have been living on this land for decades, before Hezbollah even existed,” the farmer continued, boasting an AK-47 he said he bought for $2,700. “I have four others like this one,” he added.

Only the men remain in Farouqieh and Masriyeh, some 300 meters away from the Hermel village of Al-Qasr. The women and children have all headed west into Lebanon.

Jamal, 40, who sent his family and parents to the safer Al-Qasr, decided to stay behind to guard his home and land.

Though a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, the man criticized what he dubbed as the party’s “cautious behavior” with regard to the unrest in Syria.

“Although attacks against us have become intolerable, the party still asks its supporters to exercise self-restraint and not be dragged into big fights,” said Jamal, whose home has been attacked by Syrian rebel forces.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah dismissed Thursday as “inaccurate” media reports saying members of his group were fighting alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He also said 23 border villages located inside Syrian territories but inhabited by Lebanese were forced to take up arms following attacks by the Free Syrian Army, stressing that the population were fighting by themselves and no one was fighting on their behalf.

Located a few kilometers away from the Syrian region of Qusayr in Homs, the villages of Matrabeh, Zeita, Hawik, Aqrabieh, Semaqieh, Jermash, Akoum, Nahrieh, Sqarja, Fadlieh, Gawgaran, Hantalieh, Sefsafeh, Farouqieh, Masriyeh, Wadi Hanna, Hamameh, Sugmanieh and Hawsh al-Sayyed lie on Syrian lands but are all inhabited by Lebanese.

Nasrallah did acknowledge that the commander of Hezbollah’s infantry unit in the Bekaa Valley died while performing his “jihadist duty” in one of those villages.

Ali Hussein Nassif, who went by Abu Abbas, was buried week. He was among those who died defending Shiite villages on the other side of the border, according to Hezbollah’s leader.

Sources close to the party in the northern region of Hermel said reports about Hezbollah sending fighters to war-torn Syria were meant to cover up for a highly probable attack by Syrian rebel forces on the string of border Shiite villages inside Syria.

“Rumors being spread about Hezbollah taking part in the unrest in Syria will be used as a pretext to justify imminent attacks against Shiite villages inside Syria,” one of the sources said. But “the nature of Hezbollah’s reaction is not immediately obvious,” said the source. “They might retaliate or simply ask residents there, the majority of whom are Lebanese, to abandon their properties and head back to Lebanese territory in a bid to avoid Sunni-Shiite strife that could spiral out of control.”

In Hermel, Hezbollah’s main stronghold in the northern Bekaa region, most families own land and property on the Syrian side of the border. Undemarcated and highly porous, a clear border line between Lebanon and Syria is only semi-existent. Until the unrest in Syria erupted some 19 months ago, many on the border made a living by smuggling staples such as heating oil, vegetables and cleaning detergents into Lebanon.

Nowadays the same smuggling routes are being used to transfer weapons and fighters to all those involved in the fighting in Syria.

Syrian and Lebanese territories in this area are so intertwined that Hermel residents often commute by simply walking to their properties inside Syria. The only border marking is the Saqiet Matraba stream, an offshoot of the Orontes River.

“The land is Syrian but it is owned by Lebanese who originally hail from Hermel. They have Lebanese IDs and vote here,” said Mohammad Jaafar, member of a Hermel committee tasked with mediating reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite villages on Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria.

Jaafar said Hermel’s major clans and families, such as the Jaafar, Zeaiter, Saqr, Kheireddine, Noun, Zein and Qataya families, own estates inside Syria.

“They sent their children to Syrian schools and benefited from Syria’s healthcare system,” Jaafar said.

But since the turmoil in Syria broke out matters have become difficult for the residents of the string of border Shiite villages.

According to residents who were forced to flee, some groups from the Syrian opposition operating in the Homs region seem to have stepped up pressure against Shiite villages on the Syrian side of the border.

Abu Falah Qataya and his two wives left their apricot groves in the village of Al-Masriyeh for Al-Qasr in Lebanon after receiving threats.

“I was receiving daily death threats,” said Qataya, 60. “They even forced all the Syrians who worked for me to quit their jobs only because I am Shiite.”

Jamal argued that threats, sabotage operations and robberies carried out by some Syrian rebels against Shiite villages have led the men, the majority of whom are supporters of Hezbollah, to acquire weapons and form a “defense squad” against fighters in Syria. “There is constant coordination among us,” he said.

A senior security source from the Bekaa Valley said that armament wasn’t too difficult in those villages due to the tribal nature of the area. “They all belong to tribes and tribes are known to own all kinds of weapons,” the source said.

While the source doesn’t rule out the possibility of opposition fighters in Syria launching an offensive against Shiite villages, the source maintained that chances it may succeed were very meager. “The Syrian Army is strongly present in those villages due to the fact that their residents are supportive of the regime in addition to the fact that those who remained there are morally and logistically well-prepared to counter potential attacks,” said the source.

The source added that Hezbollah was keen on keeping the 23 villages populated in order to keep Syrian rebel forces away from Hermel, whose arid mountains and valleys are known to house major military bases and camps for the party.

The source close to Hezbollah agreed, saying the main reason why the powerful group is reluctant to offer generous help to families displaced into Lebanon is to encourage them to remain on their land.

“They don’t want them to feel comfortable here and leave their place for the Free Syrian Army to fill it,” the source said.

In the meantime, Jamal from Faroukieh said he was waiting for Syrian opposition forces to raid his village and surrounding areas.

“Only then we will have full freedom to deal with them in our own way,” he said. “If they attack us Hezbollah will not dare prevent us from striking back and teaching those thugs a lesson.” – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 13, 2012, on page 1.

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