Mona Alami

Rural north Lebanon free of Jabhat al-Nusra – for now

wadi khaled

While Lebanon’s north is definitely experiencing increasing unrest, a very different scene is depicted in the region’s rural villages and quiet city streets, one in which Jabhat al-Nusra plays, for now at least, no part. NOW’s sources in the region paint a contrasting picture than the one disseminated in a March article in Al-Akhbar, which claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra was spreading to Wadi Khaled.


In Thursday’s afternoon sun, the Lebanese army slowly moved out from its customary position atop the Wadi Khaled plains, bordering Syria. Trucks carrying soldiers and a few tanks rolled down in the direction of Bqaiha, a village in Wadi Khaled. Roadblocks were swiftly erected while soldiers monitored passing cars. From a nearby balcony, a group of Syrian refugees cautiously observed the traffic caused by the military.


“They only deploy in the region when the situation quiets down,” snickers Abu Mohammad, a local resident.


In the last few weeks, several skirmishes have taken place between Wadi Khaled residents and Syrian forces allied to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Wadi Khaled residents are defending themselves when the region comes under attack. We have been labeled as Jabhat al-Nusra and Salafis. What does the government expect us to do? We are a tribal society, everyone has weapons and is willing to use them in self-defense,” adds Ahmad Sayed, a local activist.


Sources in Wadi Khaled admit to having formed an informal network of fighters who coordinate operations between the different villages when the region is bombed.


“We feel completely at the mercy of the Syrians. The Lebanese army does not back us up and sometimes we have to take matters into our hands,” reckons Abu Mohammad. Last June, Wadi Khaled residents kidnapped a number of Syrian and Lebanese Alawites after resident Ahmad Suleiman was abducted by Syrian forces.


Residents nonetheless deny allowing the FSA to fight in Wadi Khaled. “FSA members who remain in the region are either absconders or fighters who travel back and forth [between Syria and Lebanon] to visit their families,” one source told NOW on condition of anonymity.


Villagers say that a growing numbers of Syrians flock into Bqaiha every day; an average 3 to 5 families cross the border every week. There are about 17,000 Syrian refugees in Wadi Khaled which boast a population of 40,000 Lebanese.


Abu Mohammad’s version of the region’s military network is confirmed by an army source, close to the opposition. “There is no Jabhat al-Nusra in Wadi Khaled. While it is true that at the beginning of the conflict some FSA used the north to wage attacks on Syria, local residents got fed up with the bombing and have curtailed their activity,” underlines the military source. Interestingly, Islamic NGOs which were very active in Wadi Khaled at the start of the Syrian revolution are now less present on the ground.


This situation is very different from the radicalized reality of Tripoli.


According to sources in Tripoli and Wadi Khaled, fighters who had previously been enthusiastic about fighting in Syria alongside the rebels have now turned their attention to the northern capital, because of fears of a possible widening of the conflict. In the last few days, seven people have been killed in clashes between the rival neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen (home to Alawite supporters of Assad) and Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh whose residents oppose Assad’s regime. In addition to the seven dead, 30 others have been wounded.


“Some members of the Salafi community feel they might have a more useful role to play in Tripoli given the growing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, as well Hezbollah’s hubris,” one Salafi source admits to NOW on condition of anonymity.


The city’s geography is slowly shifting and following a new political order. The impoverished street of al Maslakh leading from Jabal Mohsen into Mankoubin, and further to the Deir Ammar power plant has been stripped of banners and flags of the Sunni Future movement. Now black Islamic flags inscribed with the testament ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet’ hang on electric wires or have been painted on of the streets buildings.


It is here, in the destitute areas of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Mankoubin, forgotten by the state and the city’s politicians, that the biggest threat to peace resides. According to the Salafi source, more and more youths are now escaping the control of the city’s main political figures. “About 25 youths are behind the growing violence between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, no one knows who is backing them and the army seems unwilling to arrest them,” points out the Salafi source. 


Read this article in Arabic 

Despite Wadi Khaled residents' support for the Syrian opposition, Jabhat al-Nusra has not yet gained a foothold. (AFP photo)

" ‘About 25 youths are behind the growing violence between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, no one knows who is backing them and the army seems unwilling to arrest them.’"