Fragile truce along northeastern border strained

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A fragile truce between rival villages on Lebanon’s northeastern border with Syria is beginning to show signs of cracking. A five-kilometer stretch of unmarked border divides communities of Lebanese Shiites living inside Syrian territory from members of the Syrian opposition living in Lebanon.

Tensions between the border villages, which lie a stone’s throw from each other, have been steadily rising since the start of the uprising in Syria, and have resulted in a series of kidnappings and armed reprisals.

This escalation of violence has claimed the lives of many residents, including Hezbollah commander Hussein Ali Nassif from the northern Bekaa Valley, and has also resulted in residents on both sides migrating across the border to escape the tension.

Many of those sympathetic to the uprising from Syrian villages have moved to the Lebanese village of Arsal through the illegal crossing of Masharih al-Qaa, while residents of the Shiite villages have relocated to Hermel and Beirut.

With an estimated 5,000 Hezbollah fighters present in the region and roughly 6,000 Syrian opposition fighters located nearby in the Syrian city of Qusair and its outskirts, the area is a tinder box.

The latest incident in the tense region took place Wednesday, when Syrian troops destroyed a home using a landmine because it blocked the view from a checkpoint.

No casualties were reported in the explosion. The troops asked the home’s owner, Hussein Ezzedine, to evacuate his home before it was destroyed.

The head of the reconciliation committee for the border villages, Ali Zeaiter, said that a six-week truce in place was the result of major efforts by the committee, which includes senior figures from both sides of the conflict.

Both sides are still committed to the truce despite minor violations which are quickly contained by the committee, Zeaiter said, adding the two sides are acting responsively for the time being.

The truce between the villages has meant relative calm, but maintaining it is proving difficult in light of the steady escalation between the Syrian army and the armed opposition in Syria.

The ongoing detention of people kidnapped more than six months ago and the recent sectarian clashes in Tripoli, between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, are also fueling tensions.

Political sources said that Syrian rebels continued to hold seven Lebanese near the town of Qusair, while Hezbollah is holding four Syrian nationals for their alleged activities in support of the Free Syrian Army. Hezbollah officials declined to comment on the accusations.

Zeaiter explained that the truce requires that both sides commit to peaceful coexistence, allow civilians to move around safely, release captives and prevent any new kidnappings.

“Any problem is resolved on the spot before things get worse to make sure the losses remain minimal. Both sides are caught in a vicious cycle of revenge that will not end, irrespective of the outcome of the war in Syria,” he said. “The residents on both sides of the border are connected through the bonds of blood, business and land.”

Zeaiter added that the past two weeks have witnessed the safe transfer of five badly wounded Syrians to hospitals in the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon, while two hostages have been released by the Syrian armed opposition groups.

But the truce will not hold for long, Zeaiter predicted. Major developments in Syria and constant interference from countries outside the region will only create further obstacles to maintaining the peace, he said.

A Hezbollah official, speaking to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, said he shared the pessimism that the truce will hold in light of information obtained by the group on the ongoing mobilization of the extremist armed group, Nusra Front, in the region.

He also said that a confrontation between the residents of the border villages is inevitable as he maintained that the essential aim of the Syrian opposition groups was to displace the largest possible number of residents of these villages and seize control of the area.

The area could then be used by armed groups to facilitate safe passage between the rural parts of Homs and Qusayr and Wadi Khaled in Akkar on the Lebanese side, to secure a supply line of money and weapons to armed groups, he continued.

The Hezbollah official went on to say that the Syrian opposition groups also wanted to besiege the predominantly Alawite regions in Syria that lie along the coastline and extend into the coastal mountain range.

“If the [Masharih al-Qaa] region is seized, it will provide a bridge that links these areas and the interior regions of Syria including the capital, Damascus,” the official said, arguing that Syrian armed opposition groups had identified the capture of the Alawite-majority border village of Haidariya as a key part of the plan.

However, the rebels postponed carrying out the plan after realizing the strength of the Shiite villagers and Hezbollah fighters tasked with defending them, and this decision has allowed the truce to remain in effect, he said.

The official insisted that Hezbollah is only defending the residents of these border villages and that his party’s commitment to the truce and facilitating corridors for humanitarian needs served as proof of this.

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