Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Cross border debacle

Sectarian tensions stemming from Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria are spilling increasingly into Lebanon, with many foreseeing calamity ahead, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

The explosion that rocked the dominantly Shia city of Hermel in northeast Lebanon last Saturday reverberated across the country, signalling the alarm for politicians across the political divide that the conflict next door, in Syria, was about to engulf their own country.

As the Syrian conflict continues unabated, and with any optimism over the peace talks in Geneva fast evaporating, the Lebanese are bracing for the worst.

For the past few weeks, government and opposition, Shia and Sunni politicians, have advised caution. Hizbullah, whose involvement in the Syrian conflict has undermined the fragile formula of political coexistence in Lebanon, has been eager to curb the rise of factional tensions. The Iranian-backed Shia outfit has also taken extra measures to strengthen security in the southern suburbs of Beirut and Al-Beqaa Valley, its traditional strongholds.

But it is questionable whether security measures alone would suffice to rein in the wave of sectarian violence that is fed by militants spilling over the borders into Lebanon, seeking revenge against Hizbullah while attacking soft civilian targets in Shia areas.

Despite the efforts exerted by the Lebanese army and Hizbullah to stop suicide bombers from entering Lebanon from Syria, their efforts have been only partially successful.

The borders between the two countries are hard to control because the hilly terrain, which offered protection to smugglers for decades, is almost impossible to police.

To complicate things further, the suicide attackers who target Lebanon are often Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians who can blend into the population with relative ease.

The problem is worse in Al-Beqaa region, where the mountain routes are hard to control and the population on both sides of the border is connected by family ties.

Take, for example, Arsal, a dominantly Sunni border village that has been accused of offering safe passage to arms dealers and suicide bombers.

Arsal had gained such notoriety that the nearby, dominantly Shia, village of Labwa, decided to cut off the road leading between the two, practically cutting off Arsal from the rest of the country.

It was only when Hizbullah officials intervened that the road was reopened, but this did little to defuse the tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities in the eastern Al-Beqaa Valley.

Arsal is a town of 30,000 people or so, living in low-rise houses over a sprawling area. The town has a history of smuggling, and its Sunni inhabitants are connected through marriage with nearby Syrian villages across the border.

Many of Arsal’s inhabitants are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, and have played host to thousands of Syrian refugees who crossed the border to escape the inferno of civil war in their country.

According to some estimates, the number of Syrian refugees in Arsal is almost double that of the town’s original population.

Arsal has tense relations with Hizbullah, and its population claims that the Shia group shelled their town a few weeks ago, killing several of its Sunni inhabitants.

Hizbullah denies the accusations, while blaming Arsal and its inhabitants for giving free passage to bombers from Al-Qaeda affiliates who target its powerbase in Beirut’s southern suburbs and other parts of the country.

The current wave of violence is likely to continue, as it feeds on the hostilities next door. It is the custom of Al-Qaeda affiliates to attack soft targets, which in this case are the civilian areas loyal to Hizbullah. Since such attacks seem to involve little planning, and can be carried out with relatively small amounts of explosives, it will be hard for any level of security precautions to prevent them completely.

Lebanon has fallen into the grip of sectarian tensions unseen since the end of the civil war nearly 15 years ago. Despite hectic efforts by Sunni and Shia leaders to avert a head-on collision between their communities, mistrust is growing by the day.

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