Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The Arsal tug of war

A deal of sorts has been reached in the Lebanese town of Arsal, but what will be the outcome, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The crisis in the Lebanese town of Arsal has been rolled back, or so everyone hopes. But the cost to the Syrian refugees living in camps around the town has been considerable. At least 60 people, mostly civilians, have perished in the shelling of the camps by the Lebanese army and the Hezbollah militia. Twice as many have been injured.

A truce has now gone into effect but it is unlikely to further the interests of the thousands of Syrian civilians stranded in this border town. Many of them want to go home but are prevented from doing so by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Hundreds of refugee tents have been destroyed in the shelling, and their inhabitants reduced to living in the open, receiving little or no humanitarian help. Members of the Syrian opposition now admit that allowing the fighters into the camps was a mistake, but their departure did nothing to allay the suffering of the stranded refugees.

Hezbollah is still besieging Arsal, and reports from the town and its surrounding camps indicate widespread mistreatment of the refugees. Hezbollah fighters are said to be detaining young men in the camps and withholding humanitarian assistance from the refugees.

Arsal is the only Sunni town in a predominantly Shiite area of Lebanon. It is now at the mercy of Hezbollah militiamen, who, according to some reports, raided the camps dressed in army uniform.

Naji Najjar, a former officer in the Lebanese intelligence, spoke to the Weekly about Arsal’s ordeal. “About 20,000 Hezbollah militia dressed in Lebanese army uniforms raided Arsal with the backing of the Lebanese army. The army offensive was led by the Maghawir company led by Shamel Roukoz, an in-law of pro-Syrian general Michel Awn,” Najjar said.

According to Najjar, Hezbollah and Awn have been trying to “groom” Shamel Roukoz for the job of Lebanese army chief, in order to give Jean Qahwaji the opportunity to run for president. “The idea is to present the two men as heroes who saved the country from terrorists,” Najjar added.

“Various Lebanese groups are afraid of Hezbollah and wish to see it destroyed by the Syrian conflict.”

The deal that may have ended the crisis in Arsal called for an end to all forms of harassment of the refugees. But as soon as the fighters departed from the camps and the Lebanese army deployed there, arrests began.

Local reports indicate that Hezbollah militiamen arrested children in the camps, some of whom were later interrogated and tortured.

The Lebanese Organisation for Democracy and Human Rights (LODHR), an NGO, has withdrawn from the negotiations to protest what it has called “serious violations” of the rights of refugees.

The president of LODHR, Nabil Al-Halabi, explained to the Weekly that “the basis of the initiative [on Arsal] was to evacuate the wounded and not harm the Syrian refugees after the deployment of the Lebanese army. In return, abducted Lebanese soldiers would be released. But the Lebanese government and army have showed scant regards for human rights.”

According to Al-Halabi, the army conducted arbitrary arrests, detained wounded people, and removed patients form hospitals to interrogation rooms.

“Even children were subjected to torture, and wounded children were interrogated. Some of them died from torture in a hospital run by the Amal Movement in Baalbek,” Al-Halabi said.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), the Syrian opposition group, has urged Lebanese authorities to offer protection and assistance to the Arsal refugees, whose situation was described as “tragic.”

Meanwhile, the Arsal confrontation has also ignited xenophobic feelings in Lebanon, where some politicians have called for the expulsion of the Syrians and some fanatical writers have demanded their “extermination.”

About one million Syrians have now fled the civil war in their country to the relative safety of Lebanon, but many are still subject to hate campaigns. Some cities have imposed a night-time curfew on Syrians, while others have banned them from residence or work.

Hate crimes are on the rise, and several Syrians have reportedly been assaulted in Lebanon for no apparent reason.

During the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, Syria played host to nearly one million Lebanese refugees. Syrians who had expected their acts of hospitality toward their neighbours to be reciprocated have been bitterly disappointed.

The current ordeal of the refugees in Arsal is unlikely to end soon, said Al-Halabi.

“The current truce will last for some time, now that the Syrian opposition combatants have pulled out of Arsal. But if the Lebanese army and Hezbollah continue to harass the refugees, another crisis will emerge — if not in Arsal then in another part of Lebanon,” he predicted.

Fahd Al-Masri, a former Free Syrian Army (FSA) spokesman, now runs the Centre for Strategic, Security and, Military Studies on Syria, an opposition think tank.

Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Masri claimed that Hezbollah had “tricked” the Syrian combatants into deploying in Arsal.

Once the combatants entered the camps, Hezbollah used their presence for propaganda purposes, Al-Masri asserted, adding that “once the [Syrian combatants] were there, they unintentionally served the aims of Hezbollah and the Syrian agenda.”

According to Al-Masri, “It is wrong to assume that the withdrawal of the gunmen from Arsal will end the ordeal or save the town from partial or total destruction.”

Al-Masri believes that it is only a matter of time before Hezbollah claims “once again that there are Syrian fighters inside Arsal in order to justify a military offensive against it.

“Those who have followed the course of military operations over the past year in Homs, Al-Qalamun, and Arsal will have figured out that Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, and Iran are determined to cut off the supply routes to Syrian revolutionaries through Lebanon.”

According to Al-Masri, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime are now busy carving out territory for a future Shiite mini-state that would resemble a crescent extending from Iran to the Mediterranean.

“They are preparing the groundwork for the declaration of an Alawite coastal state including parts of Biqaa and Tripoli, one that would look like a crescent extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean by way of Iraq and Syria,” Al-Masri said.

The recent events in Arsal, including “its bombardment and the evacuation of its inhabitants” are part of this scheme, he added.

According to Al-Masri, Hezbollah wants to implicate the Lebanese army in its sectarian plans. “To cover up its sectarian and military objectives, Hezbollah is trying to implicate the Lebanese army and even the Christians in the events in Arsal,” he said.

“Hezbollah has succeeded in rallying Lebanese public opinion. It has portrayed the flight of dozens of Syrian gunmen to Arsal, which was merely an attempt to escape shelling by the Syrian army, as a terrorist plan against the country.”

The army may have deployed in Arsal, but according to Al-Masri those who are in real control of the area are members of Hezbollah and Iranian security officials.

Louay Safi, another Syrian opposition member, agreed that Hezbollah was fuelling sectarian resentments in the ongoing conflict.

Speaking to the Weekly, Safi denounced Hezbollah’s policies. “The Lebanese now feel threatened because a battle has taken place inside their country. But it is the unilateral actions of Hezbollah, and its decision to back a criminal regime, that have led us to such destruction.”

Although Safi is not optimistic about this prospect, he argues that the only way out of the current crisis is for Hezbollah to pull out of Syria.

“The only way to keep Lebanon neutral is for the tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters to pull out of Syria. But Iran would not allow this as it is determined to prop up Syria’s dictatorial regime.”

Safi advised the Lebanese to press for Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria, if not for the sake of Syrians then for the sake of peace in their own country.

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