Ana Maria Luca

Beqaa, a new front in the Syrian conflict

The battle of Qusayr has pushed the fighting into eastern Lebanon

a map of the Hermel and Arsal regions.

A Syrian army helicopter bombed the eastern Beqaa town of Arsal again yesterday afternoon. This time they aimed at the center of the town, located in a valley of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range a few kilometers away from the Syrian border.


It was the latest episode in a series of incidents that raise concern that a new front may emerge in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley, especially after Syrian regime forces and Hezbollah-trained fighters have recently pushed the rebels out of Qusayr, a former rebel stronghold. Analysts say that a war in the Beqaa is imminent.


Arsal has been bombed by the Syrian air force in August last year, but no inhabited areas were hit then. Most of the military operations took place in the farmlands straddling the border, as the Syrian army officially said that they were following rebel fighters who had crossed into Lebanon. For the people in Arsal, a Sunni enclave on the border with Syria surrounded by Hezbollah-controlled areas, bombing the inhabited areas was a long time coming. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the town has earned a reputation for sheltering Syrian refugees and anti-regime activists, and its farmlands have been reportedly used as a safe haven by rebel fighters.  


Arsal’s support for the Syrian rebellion has brought the town to an open war with neighboring Hermel, a region controlled by Shiite Hezbollah (which is involved in the Syrian conflict alongside the regime’s loyalist forces). On Tuesday, a resident of Arsal was killed and another two were briefly kidnapped while passing through Hezbollah’s territory. Politically motivated tit-for-tat kidnappings have occured quite often between the inhabitants of the two towns during the past year. 


“People from Arsal pass through Hezbollah-control areas every day,” Arsal’s vice-president of the Municipality, Ahmad Fleeti, told NOW minutes before his town was bombed yesterday. “They are harassed, kidnapped, beaten, and even killed,” he added. “We don’t know what is happening within Hezbollah, but we are citizens and we have the right to go wherever we want - and this right should be protected by the Lebanese state. [If the state doesn’t protect the people] we will choose to defend ourselves and we don’t want to choose that option, neither against Hezbollah nor against any other party,” Fleeti stressed.


On the other hand, the presence of Hezbollah fighters in Hermel has also triggered several shelling episodes from Syrian rebels which killed civilians. In Arsal, the Syrian Army incursions has also resulted in further civilian casualties.


The Syrian front has been expanding to the eastern Beqaa Valley for over a year, while locals complain that Lebanese authorities have done little to prevent the outbreak of conflict. A mysterious bombing on Monday in Tanaayel, a town on the Beirut-Damascus highway, that targeted a bus transporting armed men to Syria has worried analysts even more. The bus, carrying armed men who were wounded in the attack, immediately left the scene of the bombing and the passengers were allowed to cross into Syria through the Masnaa checkpoint. Contacted by NOW, the municipality representatives refused to make any statement.


Since the Shiite group has made public its involvement in the Syrian conflict, "targeting it in Lebanon has become a serious problem," according to Qassem Kassir, a Lebanese analyst who closely follows Hezbollah’s affairs. He added, “[Sunni] extremist groups in Lebanon have warned Hezbollah many times before. Bombings in [Hezbollah-controlled] Dahiyeh and Hermel mean they have started to put these threats into practice,” Kassir pointed out.


“[The Lebanese state] should have a serious plan to stop these clashes and take a radical decision about Hezbollah’s interference in Syria,” he said.


Nabil bou Monsif, a political commentator for the national newspaper An-Nahar, also said that the situation in Arsal cannot be isolated forever and its skirmishes with rival Hermel are threatening to spread to the entire country. “When an issue is becoming sectarian, the army is usually paralyzed,” he told NOW. “The army is not banning Hezbollah from going to Syria, they are not capable of controlling the border. Hezbollah itself wants the border to be chaotic in order to go and come freely,” bou Monsif said, referring to Monday’s bombing in Tanaayel.


“Hezbollah dragged the country and the region into the Syrian conflict and we are now paying for this involvement,” Future Movement MP Moein Merhabi told NOW. The politician from Tripoli has been an active supporter of the Syrian uprising since protests broke out in 2011. “I have always been clear that Hezbollah was involved [in Syria], and the disassociation policy taken by the Lebanese government was just a cover. I do not mean to push the government to deny or accuse Hezbollah of involvement [in the Syrian conflict],” Merhabi stressed. “I am afraid that the Beqaa Valley will turn into a front [of the Syrian conflict],” he told NOW.  


Yara Chehayed contributed with translation.


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.  

Sunni Arsal and Shiite Hezbollah-controlled Hermel are being caught in the Syrian war.

“[The Lebanese state] should have a serious plan to stop these clashes and take a radical decision about Hezbollah’s interference in Syria.”