Khaled Hmayed’s bullet-riddled Nissan pick-up truck is still parked on the side of the road where the 43-year-old Lebanese militant died in a hail of Lebanese army gunfire two weeks ago. His death, in still disputed circumstances, and the subsequent killing of at least two Lebanese soldiers by vengeful residents has cast a spotlight on the town of Arsal in the northern Bekaa Valley, home to 48,000 Sunnis and an important logistical support hub for Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar Assad just across the border.
Although the Lebanese government has adopted a policy of disassociation with the war in neighboring Syria, it is unable to prevent the conflict from leaching across the border, stirred by rival Lebanese Shi’ite and Sunni factions that have cast their lot with the Assad regime and rebel opposition forces respectively. Given its tangled sectarian demographics and rising animosity between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Lebanon is a minefield of potential flashpoints. But few hold as much possibility for serious violence as the northern Bekaa.
Arsal, wedged into a mountainous pocket of northeast Lebanon close to the border, sits at the nexus of Sunni and Shi’ite divisions over the conflict in Syria. Syrian rebels and Lebanese Sunni volunteers use the barren, rugged mountains to the north and east of Arsal to slip weapons and ammunition into Syria and to ferry casualties from nearby battlefronts to Lebanese hospitals. Last year, Syrian jets bombed the hilly terrain east of Arsal and Syrian soldiers have staged several incursions to intercept rebels crossing the border.
Syria’s SANA news agency on Wednesday described Arsal as a “producer of terrorism targeting the Syrian people on a daily basis.” It urged the Lebanese government to take decisive measures against the town, warning that “covering up for the terrorists is a crime that will be reflected negatively on Lebanon and Syria.”
Since Hmayed’s killing, troops from Lebanon’s elite Air Assault regiment have deployed around Arsal, manning a checkpoint on the single asphalt road leading to the town, searching cars and checking identifications. Other troops patrol the surrounding mountains, for now effectively sealing off Arsal from the Syrian war.
“It’s a major blow for the Free Syrian Army because that’s where we get our fighters, weapons, ammunition, food everything,” says Ahmad, a former law student from the Syrian border town of Qusayr who joined the FSA eight months ago. He spoke to TIME in a safehouse in a village near Arsal.
Local residents say that Hmayed was an active member of the FSA and that he was deliberately targeted by a unit of Lebanese military intelligence. “It was an assassination,” said Abdullah Hmayed, Khaled’s father, sitting in a canvas mourning tent outside his son’s simple home.
Residents say that Hmayed was on his way to the mosque for Friday prayers when his vehicle was intercepted by the military intelligence agents. After killing him, the soldiers retrieved Hmayed’s body from the car and headed south out of the town along a dirt track before losing their way and becoming stuck in snow drifts. Some 200 to 300 armed men from Arsal gave chase and on reaching the army unit surrounded them and opened fire, killing at least two soldiers and wounding several others.
The Lebanese army said that Hmayed was a wanted terrorist and was killed while resisting arrest. The Lebanese government and army are demanding the handing over of the gunmen that attacked the soldiers. But the residents of Arsal are calling for an independent investigation into Hmayed’s death which they claim was an “execution.”
Still, the army finds itself in a difficult position. Maintaining a tight grip on Arsal will further alienate the residents and deepen accusations that the government is serving the interests of the Assad regime by placing the town under pressure. Ali Hojeiry, Arsal’s embattled mayor, has won broad backing from many Sunni leaders in Lebanon who sympathize with the town’s assistance to Syrian rebels. But if the army redeploys from Arsal before the residents hand over the suspects in the deaths of the soldiers, it risks weakening an institution that many Lebanese regard as a guarantor of internal stability. Sunnis are thought to make up the majority of the lower ranks, which could test the integrity of the army in the event of sustained clashes with Lebanese Sunni militants.
On Wednesday, General Jean Khawagi, the commander of the Lebanese army, warned that there would be no “secret deals” or compromises at the expense of the dead soldiers. Nonetheless, it is likely that a compromise will be reached eventually to ease tensions in the town, especially given the highly sensitive security situation in the northern Bekaa Valley.
For a few miles to the north-west of Arsal, on the other side of the Bekaa Valley lies the town of Hermel and a string of villages populated by Shi’ites where the militant Iran-backed Hizballah organization has a strong presence. Hizballah is a staunch ally of the Assad regime and has dispatched combat-hardened fighters across the border where they are helping Syrian troops battle FSA rebels, among them Lebanese Sunni volunteers from Arsal, in the vicinity of Qusayr, which lies five miles north of the frontier. The fighting here has been intense for several months and the sounds of artillery explosions, air strikes and machine gun fire often is audible inside Lebanon. Hizballah has played down its role in Syria, although it has become common knowledge that fighters are helping defend the Assad regime. At the end of September, Ali Nassif, a veteran Hizballah commander who went by the nom de guerre Abu Abbas, was killed near Qusayr, an incident which forced the party’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, to concede that some of his men were operating across the border, albeit limited to defending several villages inside Syria populated by Lebanese Shi’ites.
“After Abu Abbas was killed, Hizballah went crazy and entered fully into the battle,” said Adnan, a local leader of the FSA from the Syrian village of Zeraa just south of Qusayr. “The Syrian army and Hizballah surrounded Zeraa and for three days bombed us with missiles, mortars and tanks.” Adnan said he and the other villagers were forced to flee Zeraa and walked for 12 hours through the mountains to reach the safety of Arsal.
For now, Hizballah and the Lebanese FSA volunteers have confined their battles to Syrian territory just across the border. Both sides appear to appreciate the gravity of allowing the war in Syria to spill into the northern Bekaa Valley. “We are in a defensive mode,” said Abu Ali, a Hizballah supporter from the Shi’ite border village of Qasr. “But if the Sunnis attack us here [in Qasr], we will attack them there [in Arsal].”
Many Shi’ites in Lebanon are apprehensive at the rise of Sunni jihadist groups in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most potent fighting groups in the Syrian opposition but branded a terrorist organization by the United States. Those concerns may be well-founded. Ahmad, the FSA fighter from Qusayr, admitted that some within the ranks of the Syrian opposition are setting their sights on Hizballah after the Assad regime falls. “There is talk within the Free Syrian Army that once we have finished with the regime in Syria, we will clean Lebanon [of Hizballah],” he said.
According to the FSA rebels, Hizballah appears to have taken advantage of the Lebanese army’s clampdown on Arsal to slip fighters into the mountains between the town and the border to act as a blocking force against rebel infiltrators. “They have set up positions and ambush points to stop us using the mountains,” said Adnan. “It has become very dangerous. We can avoid the Lebanese army, but not Hizballah. They are very sharp and we fear them.”
A few miles north of Arsal on the outskirts of the Christian village of Qaa is a small hill sitting at the foot of the soaring sepia-hued mountains that rise to the east. On the summit of the hill is a statue of the Virgin Mary, a popular destination for local Christians to light a candle, pray and enjoy the sweeping views to the north, stretching down across the agricultural plain of Masharih al-Qaa, over the border to Qusayr and beyond to Homs, Syria’s third largest city, which at a distance of more than 25 miles appears as a white gash shimmering in the dusty haze.
TIME was not the only one taking in this vista on Tuesday. Also scanning the mountains to the east and the plain to the north were two young men sporting beards and wearing black trousers and thick black-hooded jackets against the chill breeze. An off-road rally bike stood near them. Their appearance, mode of transport and taciturnity marked them as local Hizballah men, presumably keeping an eye on movement in the nearby mountains. The presence of the Hizballah men in these mountains and overlooking Masharih al-Qaa was on the mind of Ahmad, the FSA fighter from Qusayr, as he spent nine hours last Sunday creeping across the border into Lebanon. “We are suffering because Arsal has been taken out of the equation and Masharih al-Qaa, the only other route in, is under very close watch by Hizballah,” he said.
The people of Arsal show no sign of dampening their assistance to the Syrian rebels irrespective of any measures undertaken by the Lebanese army and government. But if Hizballah fighters are now poised to intercept FSA rebels attempting to criss-cross the border, the northern Bekaa could soon become an active extension of the war in Syria.