by Geoffrey Daniels
Following the victory of the Syrian regime and their Hezbollah counterparts at al-Qusayr in early June 2013, Sunni extremist groups began conducting escalatory reprisal attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the months since, the predominantly Sunni Lebanese border town of Arsal, located directly across the border from the Qalamoun area where most of the surviving rebel fighters from al-Qusayr fled, has functioned as the primary staging area and support zone for these attacks into Lebanon. As a result, nearby Hezbollah strongholds in the Bekaa Valley are on high alert for potential car bombs and cross-border rocket attacks originating from elements in Arsal, forcing Hezbollah on the defensive in Lebanon. The Lebanese Army, meanwhile, has taken concrete measures to mitigate the threat posed by Syria to Lebanon via Arsal.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict nearly three years ago, Lebanon’s Arsal, a lone enclave in the eastern Bekaa Valley for Sunnis sympathetic to the Syrian uprising, has served as a crucial logistical support network in the struggle against the Assad regime. Located in the northeastern corner of Lebanon on the border with Syria, the town lies nearly equidistant from Hezbollah’s Bekaa Valley strongholds of Baalbek and Hermel. In spite of its isolated position, the geostrategic relevance of Arsal lies in its close proximity across the border from the contested Qalamoun mountain range. Qalamoun is an opposition stronghold in western Syria between Homs and Damascus that is currently the site of an intense battle for control of key supply lines along the M5 highway.
Lebanese authorities have long neglected Arsal and the notoriously porous nature of the border region has made it a hub for smuggling people, weapons, and drugs across the border into Syria. The smuggling routes through the connecting mountains flow freely in both directions, as weapons and fighters flow from Arsal into Qalamoun while car bombs and refugees flow in the opposite direction. Since the start of the Syrian conflict, Arsal’s pre-war population of 40,000 has more than doubled as 60,000 Syrian refugees have fled to the town due to the nearby fighting, according to municipality figures.
In the past year, Arsal has become the primary staging area and support zone for Sunni extremist groups projecting violence into Lebanon. Left in its current state, Arsal threatens the interests of Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and the Lebanese government. The primary, short-term interests of these three parties align, as Hezbollah and the Lebanese government are keen on shutting down the flow of weapons and explosives through the border, while the Syrian regime looks to control the strategic central supply routes that dissect the country. Therefore, each group has a vested stake in disrupting the networks that run through Arsal.
The Aftermath of al-Qusayr
In the beginning of June, the Syrian regime achieved a decisive military victory following a 17-day siege of and clearing operation in al-Qusayr. Al-Qusayr is an important town in Homs province located adjacent to the Lebanese border, not far from the route that connects Damascus to Homs, which in turn links the Syrian capital to the Alawite heartlands along the coast. Many of the surviving rebel fighters from the assault fled south to the nearby Qalamoun region. This important regime victory six months ago was made possible by the large-scale involvement of Hezbollah fighters, whose overt presence in Syria prompted a series of reprisal attacks in Lebanon during the summer months that were likely linked to the logistical support hub of Arsal.
In July and August, for example, Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold of Dahiyeh came under attack on two separate occasions. The first, a car bombing in the Bir al-Abed area, injured at least 53. Caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn tied the attack to Arsal residents. The second incident, another car bombing, occurred in the Ruweiss district of Beirut, not far from Bir al-Abed, killing at least 25 while injuring over 200. Lebanese authorities linked this attack to many of the same suspects based in Arsal. Similarly, Ghosn attributed a spate of roadside bombings in June and July that targeted Hezbollah convoys en route to Damascus to elements in Arsal.
As the summer months concluded, there was an escalation in two distinct trends of confrontation in Arsal, and neither shows signs of abating. First, the Syrian regime carried out a series of high-profile attacks against opposition targets inside Lebanese territory. On August 3rd, a Syrian regime airstrike killed nine, and injured nine more, including women and children, in Khirbet Daoud, just east of Arsal. Two months later, on October 7th, Syrian warplanes targeted an ambulance in the Wadi Hamid area of Arsal that was presumably transporting a wounded rebel fighter seeking refuge in Lebanon. Just a few days later, Omar al-Atrash, an Arsal resident and the suspected head of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Lebanese faction, was alleged to have been killed in a Syrian airstrike along with several others in Nehmat, near Arsal on October 11th. Al-Atrash was reportedly responsible for the August 15th Dahiyeh bombing.
On November 15th, the Syrian regime, along with its Hezbollah counterparts, launched an operation aimed at retaking the Qalamoun area. As the tempo of the Syrian regime offensive on the rebels in Qalamoun continues to increase, so do the cross-border incidents. In mid-November, two Syrian gunships carried out a series of raids targeting the outskirts of Arsal in Wadi Atta and Hay al-Shamis striking several houses purported to be inhabited by opposition militants. In the following week, three more attacks targeted Arsal in a span of just ten days.
In a rare responsive measure, the Lebanese Army fired anti-aircraft missiles at Syrian planes flying over Arsal on December 30th, reportedly responding to orders from the Lebanese Army Command to “fire on any warplane that violates Lebanese airspace.” These orders signify a departure from previous incidents, in which President Michel Suleiman condemned the violations but refrained from overt action to halt them. The reasoning behind the change in policy is unclear, but the timing of a change in the strategic perspective of the Lebanese government regarding Syrian airspace violations suggests that the Lebanese Armed Forces felt the need to display a more muscular response to a serious threat in the Bekaa Valley.
The other noticeably intensifying trend occurring in Arsal is the number of confrontations between the Lebanese Army and Syrian rebels smuggling arms and explosives. On September 29th, the Army confiscated a truck from Arsal heading to Syria that contained two hundred 80mm mortar shells and an estimated 7,000 rounds of ammunition, which Lebanese officials ultimately determined was expired.
Two weeks later, on October 14th, Lebanese Armed Forces defused a car bomb rigged with 50-kilograms of explosives in Beirut’s al-Maamoura district of the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. Thirteen individuals, the majority of whom were from Arsal, were indicted for the plot and allegedly confessed to being a part of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). The following week, a leaked security memo from the Beirut Airport alleged that JN rigged four vehicles with explosives and sent them through Arsal with forged documents, prepared for operations against Hezbollah strongholds.
In perhaps the most high-profile attempt to smuggle explosives into Lebanon to date, on November 22nd, Lebanese Independence Day, security forces dismantled a car near Hezbollah’s Bekaa Valley stronghold Baalbek carrying 400-kilograms of explosives. For comparison’s sake, the explosives were nearly eight times heavier than the ones used in the Iranian Embassy suicide blasts in Beirut on November 19th that killed over 20 and injured more than 150. Authorities were alerted to the vehicle after reports of a shootout, and found the car with its front windows smashed and tires burst. Reports indicate that Hezbollah had monitored the car upon its entry into Arsal before confronting it and apprehending the passengers when it reached an isolated stretch of road just north of Baalbek, allegedly aware of its presence through the use of Iranian-made UAVs. If true, this would illustrate the substantial length to which Hezbollah is prepared to go to mitigate the threat posed by Sunni extremists in Arsal.
Most recently, on December 17th, Hezbollah fighters intercepted an explosives-laden vehicle heading for one of its military bases outside of Labweh, a town just 10 kilometers from Arsal. The targeted base in the town of Sbouba is reportedly a station used by the organization for rotating its fighters in Syria. It is clear that Hezbollah military assets in the Bekaa Valley are on high alert, and in this vein, the organization has increased security measures in Hermel to protect its interests against further attacks.
Notably, the U.S. and the U.K. have recognized the hazards posed by the porous, mountainous border with Syria, providing four-wheel drive vehicles with off-road capabilities and border-observation equipment and technology to the LAF. Similarly, the Lebanese Army itself has begun to take concrete measures to prevent the smuggling of weapons and explosives across the border. Army bulldozers constructed a 2.5-meter high, 25-kilometer long roadblock that stretches from Arsal to Ras Baalbek amidst reports of additional rockets and car bombs heading for Lebanese territory.
Only a handful of Syrian rebel groups have used vehicle-borne IEDs, operate out of the Qalamoun region, and have the strategic resources and training to employ these devices. The recent announcement, therefore, from JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani about the formal presence of his organization in Lebanon, in conjunction with a Hezbollah ambush that killed 32 JN fighters near the outskirts of Nahle, just 30-kilometers away from Arsal, suggests that JN is the primary Syrian rebel group staging attacks from Arsal and its outskirts. Similarly, in mid-December, the organization jointly claimed rocket attacks on Hermel with the previously unknown Marwan Hadid Brigades.
In retaliation for the increasingly public involvement of Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria, specifically right across the border in Qalamoun, it would not be out of the question to expect more frequent car bombings and cross-border rocket attacks against the organization’s interests in Lebanon, mirroring the trend witnessed after al-Qusayr. The southern suburbs of Beirut, Baalbek and Hermel in the Bekaa Valley, and towns in southern Lebanon like Nabi Sheet and Bint Jbeil are particularly vulnerable targets.
With refugees fleeing Syria to enter Lebanon’s Arsal at an unprecedented rate due to the intensity of fighting in nearby Qalamoun, the aforementioned trends, confrontations between the Lebanese Army and Syrian fighters smuggling weapons and explosives, in addition to airstrikes against Syrian opposition fighters in Lebanon and potential responses from the LAF, will continue, and likely occur at an accelerated pace. Over 200,000 people live in the Qalamoun area, and as fighting spreads to the towns of Nabak and Yabrud, further displacement is expected.
A potentially dangerous impact of Arsal’s refugee influx is implicit in Oxfam’s November 2013 report, Survey on the Livelihoods of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. A prominent majority of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon is under 30, living in squalid conditions while struggling to survive amidst harsh economic circumstances. Similar to the case of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, Arsal could become a major recruiting ground for Sunni extremists, if it has not already.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict remains undeterred in spite of incurring increasing casualties, including high-profile battlefield commanders. The uptick in attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon facilitated via Sunni extremists in Arsal is undoubtedly directly linked to the overt, and increased, presence of Hezbollah fighters across the border. But, in the face of a greater perceived threat from Arsal, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah highlights the necessity for increased Hezbollah presence in Syria to mitigate the danger posed to Lebanon.
With the Syrian war showing no signs of slowing and Hezbollah showing no sign of withdrawal, Arsal remains the primary staging and support zone through which JN and its allies will conduct attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Should the Assad regime and Hezbollah’s operation in Qalamoun be successful, Arsal will effectively be cut off from its support line, leaving the some 60,000 Syrian refugees in the town surrounded by Hezbollah and regime soldiers. Whether the offensive is successful or not, given the demographic composition of Arsal, the town will continue to threaten the interests of the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government.