HERMEL, Lebanon: Recent reports from Tripoli suggest that yet another round of violence is imminent between rival communities in Jabal Mohsen and surrounding areas.
But while the long-running feud between the city’s Sunni and Alawite communities continues to cause concern, it is the northern Bekaa Valley out of all Lebanon’s potential flashpoints that should elicit the greatest worry. There are other areas of the country where Sunnis and Shiites live in close proximity that have the potential for trouble, such as Sidon and its suburbs, the central Bekaa, and areas of Beirut.
But the northern Bekaa Valley is potentially the most dangerous because of the dynamics of the Shiite and Sunni communities that live there. Both communities are rooted in strong tribal traditions, have a general disdain for the authority of the state, are fiercely independent, have a history of militancy, are well armed and, most pertinently, have chosen to actively back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war raging just across the border.
The Sunnis of the northeast Bekaa Valley, centered on the town of Arsal, are staunch backers of the Syrian armed opposition. Arsal’s relative isolation from the rest of the country and its proximity to Syria via routes across the rugged unpopulated mountains to the north (to reach the Al-Qusair area) and east (to the Nabk region) has turned the town into a logistical support hub for rebel militants.
Several hundred Sunnis from the northern Bekaa Valley and elsewhere in Lebanon have joined various rebel groups and are fighting inside Syria.
The northwest Bekaa Valley is predominantly Shiite, and centered on the town of Hermel. Hezbollah is the dominant political force in the area and enjoys a high level of support from the local Shiite community. It is no secret that Hezbollah fighters are operating inside Syria, particularly in a string of some 23 villages populated by Lebanese Shiites opposite the border town of Al-Qasr. Some 5 kilometers east of these Shiite villages is Al-Qusair, which lies in rebel hands.
This has resulted in the peculiar situation where Lebanese Sunnis (with the armed Syrian opposition) and Lebanese Shiites (with Hezbollah) are fighting and killing each other just across the border inside Syria, while maintaining a wary peace when they withdraw back inside Lebanon.
A mere 6 kilometers of flat unpopulated stony terrain separates the Hezbollah-dominated Hermel area, bordered to the east by the Orontes river, from the mainly Sunni Masharih al-Qaa district where opposition rebels can be found.
So far, both sides appear to recognize the dire consequences of allowing the conflict in Syria to spill across the border. Sunni and Shiite militants and residents in the northern Bekaa generally air the same sentiment: If they leave us alone, we will leave them alone.
Traditionally, there has been little sectarian hostility between the two communities in the northern Bekaa Valley, but the war in Syria has stoked mutual fears and suspicions.
“We are very worried about the Salafists coming here and attacking us,” said Abu Ali, a local businessman who lives in Hermel. “We all support Hezbollah here. They are our only guarantee of protection.”
But a few kilometers across the valley to the east and there is no disguising the anger of Sunnis toward Hezbollah.
“When we are done there [in Syria] we are going after Hezbollah here,” said Khaled, a Sunni from a village in the northern Bekaa Valley who fights with the Syrian rebels. “The Free Syrian Army will come and clean Lebanon and then leave, just like we are helping them there [against President Bashar Assad’s regime].”
Developments in the northern Bekaa in recent weeks risks overturning the reluctance of both sides to drag the war into Lebanon. The deadly clash between the Lebanese Army and residents of Arsal at the beginning of the month, which left a local militant and two soldiers dead, placed the town in the spotlight.
The Air Assault regiment of the Army established a checkpoint on the only asphalted road leading into the town and patrolled the outskirts while the judiciary issued summons for some three dozen people for questioning, including the mayor, Ali Hujeiri. But instead of yielding to the demands of the state, the residents adopted a defiant stand bolstered by a flow of Sunni delegations to Arsal to lend their support.
Initially, the Army’s security measures isolated Arsal from Syria, essentially neutralizing it from supporting the armed rebels. The local residents also claimed that Hezbollah units had deployed into the mountains east of Ras Baalbek, which lies north of Arsal, to serve as a blocking force if the FSA rebels continued to use the route to slip into Al-Qusair.
Such a step would have been a bold and risky undertaking by Hezbollah and would almost certainly have led to clashes in the remote mountains.
However, tensions appear to have eased somewhat in recent days with political and diplomatic sources in Beirut as well as FSA militants in Arsal saying that the clandestine routes from Arsal to Syria are no longer being heavily patrolled by the Army and that no Hezbollah presence has been detected in the mountains north of the town, allowing once more for the flow of cross-border traffic.
But the fragile peace in the northern Bekaa came under renewed threat last week with the FSA delivering a 48-hour ultimatum to Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria or face having its “positions” shelled inside Lebanon. At the expiry of the deadline, an FSA statement claimed to have attacked a Hezbollah position on Hawsh Sayyed Ali on the border near Hermel. There was no attack, as confirmed by a Daily Star correspondent who was a few hundred meters from Hawsh Sayyed Ali at the time of the claimed shelling.
However, five days earlier, two rockets struck the center of Al-Qasr for the first time. There were no injuries, according to Rakan Jaafar, the mayor of the village.
The FSA released a video purportedly showing militants firing homemade rockets at “Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon,” underlining that the attack was deliberate and not simply a result of stray rounds. There also have been a number of unreported incidents in the past month or two of mortar rounds, presumably fired by the FSA, exploding just across the border in the Hermel area. The Daily Star was shown what appeared to be two mortar impact sites beside Mazraat Beit al-Tashm near Hermel.
The FSA may not have followed up on last week’s threat to shell Hezbollah inside Lebanon, but tensions in the northern Bekaa Valley are rising and it will require a high level of discipline and control from both sides to ensure that the violence remains on the Syria side of the border.