Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, both targets of US-led airstrikes in Syria, are holding more than 21 Lebanese police and soldiers. Three have already been killed, and the government is under fire from captives’ relatives.
By Nicholas Blanford
A portrait of a youthful Mohammed Hamiyah gazes down at the ranks of burly bearded men with gnarled hands who sit on plastic chairs under an awning, chatting quietly and muttering prayers for the dead.
Mr. Hamiyah, a Lebanese Army soldier, was executed Saturday with a bullet to the head by Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, which along with the Sunni extremists of Islamic State is holding hostage at least 21 Lebanese soldiers and policemen along Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. US-led airstrikes early Tuesday struck IS and Jabhat al-Nusra targets in Syria, marking an escalation of Washington’s military intervention in the overlapping conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Lebanon’s hostage crisis – which mirrors similar crises in the US, Britain, and France over Islamic State abductions and beheadings – has plunged the country into a fresh drama. Its government faces escalating protests by the distraught families, worsening sectarian tensions and, given the deep-rooted tribal traditions of the Bekaa Valley, calls for violent revenge from the victims’ families.
But Maarouf Hamiyah, Mohammed’s father, rejects any knee-jerk retaliation against either Sunnis or Syrian refugees, who number over a million in a country of some 4 million citizens.
“We are very proud that we have offered to this country a martyr from our family,” he says. “But we have a few demands. We call on our people and the tribes not to assault any Syrians or Sunnis because they are innocent of what happened.”
Underscoring his sentiment is the presence alongside him of several religious clerics, including a Sunni sheikh, two Shiite imams in black robes and white turbans, and two Christian priests.
The hostages were seized in early August when several hundred fighters, mainly IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, stormed the border town of Arsal, overrunning Army positions in the town. The kidnappers later released the Sunni captives. Mohammed Hamiyah was a Shiite. Others still in captivity are Shiites, Druze, or Christians, and two held by IS have already been beheaded, making Mohammed the third to die.
Retaliation and tribal justice
Mohammed’s videotaped execution on Saturday led to several retaliatory abductions, mainly of members of a prominent Sunni family from Arsal. Although they were quickly released, tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are running high across Lebanon, which has struggled to keep out the murderous sectarianism of Syria’s civil war that carries echoes of Lebanon’s past internecine wars.
“We are trying to educate the people to let them know how we think about religion,” says Sheikh Ayad Abdullah, the Sunni imam of Chhim, a village in the Chouf mountains south of Beirut, who came to pay condolences to the Hamiyah family. “Whatever happens, we are all living in this country together.”
Despite Hamiyah’s call for tolerance, his sense of tribal justice remains undiminished. He says he blames his son’s death on the mayor of Sunni-dominated Arsal and a Salafist cleric in the town believed to have close ties to the kidnappers.
“These people [Jabhat al-Nusra and IS] have no sect, no religion. We will stay allies with our Sunni brothers, but if it takes us even 40 years, we will have our vengeance,” he says.
A martyr for a Shiite clan
The Hamiyah clan is from Taraya, a straggly village wedged between a towering escarpment of barren limestone to the west and flat fertile fields to the east. Farmers grow wheat, potatoes, tobacco, and lentils; they also provide some of the Bekaa Valley’s finest hashish. The US Treasury Department listed a Hamiyah on its drug trafficking blacklist in the 1980s, although the individual says he has long since retired. Other members of the family are represented in the Iran-backed militant Shiite Hezbollah organization, among them the elusive Talal Hamiyah, a top security official.
Aql Hamiyah, the military commander of the Shiite Amal Movement during most of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, sat in the front row of mourners, shaking hands with each new arrival.
“Mohammed was not the first martyr from Taraya,” he says with a soft shrug, “nor will he be the last.”
The Army is beefing up its defenses around Arsal. In recent days, it has shelled positions held by the militants in the adjacent mountains and rounded up dozens of Syrians living in refugee camps around the town. On Friday, two soldiers were killed when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb outside Arsal. On Saturday night, a bomb exploded in the eastern Bekaa Valley at a checkpoint manned by Hezbollah, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for the bomb attack and released a videotape of the night-time explosion. Hezbollah said only three people were wounded in the blast, which occurred in an area where the party has a number of military bases and training camps.
The violence continued Monday morning with Syrian airstrikes against militant positions near Arsal inside Lebanon and unidentified gunmen opening fire on a military base in the northern city of Tripoli, killing one soldier. The shooting attack was seen as a reprisal for the Army’s crackdown on the Arsal area, further evidence that Lebanon has been sucked into the regional conflict against IS and its extremist allies.
The video footage of Mohammed Hamiyah’s execution also showed Ali Bazzal, a police corporal, begging his family to place more pressure on the government to accede to the kidnappers’ demands. The captive, a Shiite, said Jabhat al-Nusra had selected him as the next to be executed.
On Monday, Ali’s mother, Zeinab, and family members of other hostages held a demonstration at which they burned tires to block the main mountain highway to Beirut from the Bekaa Valley where they live.
“We are sick and tired of waiting for our kids to be slaughtered,” says Ramez Bazzal, Ali’s father. “We blame our weak government. They should not be in positions of power if they cannot find a way to free our sons.”
Ali Bazzal’s best chance of survival may be his wife, Rana, a Sunni from Arsal. On Monday evening she met with her husband’s kidnappers outside Arsal to hear their demands. She reportedly said that Jabhat al-Nusra had agreed to stay Ali’s execution by a week.
In a press conference Tuesday, Ms. Bazzal lashed out at the Lebanese government, calling it incompetent. “I threaten the sons of every official, because their lives are not more precious than those of the troops,” she said.