On the Frontline of the Battle for Syria’s Lebanese Villages
Firas Choufi al-Akhbar, Mar 2 2013
On the Syrian side of the Assi River Basin, there are 15 majority Lebanese villages and another 20 that are mixed. These towns have become a battle zone as opposition fighters attempt to seize control of the area. It was not long ago that the media was buzzing with reports about battles between Hezbollah and opposition fighters in the villages of the Assi (Orontes) River Basin, where approximately 30,000 Lebanese citizens reside. The area is a strategic point for the opposition as it tries to open up a route to Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled in the north, which has become an opposition support base, providing them with fighters and weapons. The Lebanese villages in Syria, the residents of which are a mix of Shi’a and Alawis, are obstacles to their progress. After al-Nusra and the Farouq Brigades managed to take control of several villages in the basin, the Lebanese villages began to organize themselves into armed Popular Committees. The fighters of the Popular Committees are hardly the seasoned and well-trained fighters of Hezbollah, as the media portray them. Many are farmers and ordinary residents who have only recently taken up arms to protect their villages. For example, one 22-year-old we met works during the day on his family’s farm, tending to a modest herd of goats and sheep. After sunset, he goes home to pick up his Kalashnikov and put on a military vest. He is a typical member of the Popular Committees. He and an 18-year-old friend are tasked with night-time guard duty, spending their evenings in a foxhole overlooking a field that separates them from the Syrian opposition fighters. One Popular Committee official in the village of Hammam, where the media reported heavy fighting involving Hezbollah last week, explains:
The attack on our village came after the Syrian army managed to rout opposition fighters along the road that crosses the border, forcing them to flee this way. 300 opposition fighters attacked us, using 14 heavy machine guns mounted on the back of pickup trucks. We were able to repel them with 50 men. We managed to kill 31 of them and injure 55, with losses on our side of only three fighters.
How did this religiously diverse area reach this point? Residents of the nearby village of Aqrabieh, where Lebanese constitute 18% of the population, tell of the dozens of kidnappings and murders in the surrounding villages. The worst case was the kidnapping of over 300 residents of the majority Christian village of Rableh during the apple picking season. In the villages around Aqrabieh, the Popular Committees have started to merge with the newly formed National Defense Forces. The idea behind the NDF is to unite the various Popular Committees, which tend to be of one color in terms of religion or sect, depending on the village, into a single mixed formation in order to prevent sectarian divisions from becoming institutionalized in the area. The NDF are organized along the same lines as the Syrian army, divided into groups of 30 that are then dispersed throughout the basin’s villages. One new recruit to the NDF, a Syrian laborer who was working in an aluminum workshop in Beirut when he decided to drop everything to come here, tells us:
Say hello to Beirut for me. I think I will die here.
Babak Dehghanpisheh, WaPo, Mar 2 2013
Fierce clashes between Lebanese Hezbollah militants and rebel fighters inside Syria have ramped up tensions on both sides of the border and could spill over into Lebanon, potentially starting a new round of sectarian bloodletting. Fighting near the Syrian city of Qusayr two weeks ago, the heaviest since the conflict began, left at least two Hezbollah fighters and more than a dozen rebels dead, according to Lebanese officials and rebel fighters. And for the first time, Syrian rebels have threatened to take the fight to Hezbollah inside Lebanese territory, a potentially dangerous expansion of the conflict. Sunni militant groups from Lebanon have been sending fighters into Syria and giving weapons and logistical support to the opposition, according to Lebanese security officials. Now, tensions are peaking as Shi’as and Sunnis from Lebanon are fighting one another inside Syria, increasing the potential for conflict back home. The fighting on the border could easily spread to Tripoli, Sidon or even Beirut, cities where heavy clashes in the past two years between Shi’as and Sunnis linked to the Syrian conflict have left dozens dead. In a report to the UNSC last week, Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern” about the “further deaths of Hezbollah members fighting inside Syria,” as well as reports of Sunni Lebanese fighters being killed in Syria. He said:
The dangers for Lebanon of such involvement and indeed of continued cross-border arms smuggling are obvious. I call upon all Lebanese political leaders to act to ensure that Lebanon remains neutral in respect of external conflicts.
In a speech Wednesday, Nasrallah acknowledged that there are Hezbollah militants fighting in the villages near the border and said the residents there have a right to defend themselves. He said “No one should make any miscalculations with us.” Observers say that one misstep from Shi’a or Sunni militants on Lebanese soil could cause the situation to deteriorate quickly. Timur Goksel, a former senior adviser to the UNIFIL now at the USAian University of Beirut, told us:
They are involved in the war on the other side, but they are trying not to bring it to Lebanon. The problem is, this thing can collapse at any moment. We may have a very serious outbreak of violence in Lebanon. So that’s what is scary.
The area where the most recent clashes took place last week includes roughly 22 villages and is home to about 30,000 people in western Syria who are predominantly Shiite and have deep historical and family ties to Lebanon. As the Syrian opposition moved into the area in recent months, some families fled to Lebanon. Others hunkered down for a fight. As clashes in the contested villages intensified two weeks ago, Lebanese fighters, many of them affiliated with Hezbollah, crossed the border to join the battle, local officials said. Issam Bleibel, the deputy mayor of Hermel and a Hezbollah member, said:
It is Lebanese land there. They are all supporting Hezbollah. It’s natural for people from here to go and defend them there.
Opposition fighters in Syria accuse Hezbollah militants of displacing Sunnis from the border area. The area has great strategic value for the Syrian opposition because Lebanese Sunnis help smuggle men and materiel across the border, according to a Lebanese former senior security official. Not only are Hezbollah fighters coming across the border, rebel fighters say, but the group is also shelling their positions from the Hermel area. Bleibel, the deputy mayor, denied the assertion of shelling from Lebanon but said the Syrian military regularly shells rebel positions. Rebel fighters say many of the Hezbollah attacks are timed to support Syrian military operations. An FSA spokesman calling himself Jaad Yamani told us:
The latest attack was in coordination with the regime army. Whenever there is pressure on the regime, Hezbollah moves in to help.
Last week, FSA commanders issued an ultimatum to Hezbollah to stop cross-border shelling and later said they had launched an attack on Hezbollah artillery positions in the village of Housh Seyed Ali, a farmland area in Lebanon. Residents of Housh Seyed Ali, from where the contested villages a few miles away in Syria are easily seen, say there was no attack from the Syrian rebels. But one resident said the intense shooting and explosions from the recent fighting had terrified his children. Two rockets fired from Syria recently hit the nearby village of Qasr. Syrian opposition fighters say Hezbollah is trying to shift Sunnis away from the border area to create a sectarian enclave linking the Shi’a villages to the traditional Alawi heartland in western Syria, a charge that Nasrallah denied in his speech Wednesday. And Syrian Shi’a near the Lebanese border say they feel an imminent threat from radical Sunnis fighting in the Syrian opposition. Hassan Sakr, a 43-year-old lawyer who is Shi’a, fled to Hermel from Qusayr more than a year ago because of the threat from Sunni fighters. Sakr said:
Unless there is an international agreement, there will be no solution. There are lots of weapons and lots of fighters, and they will keep fighting.