Lebanese villagers in Syria ride out the storm
The (Beirut, Lebanon) Daily Star
HERMEL, Lebanon -- The uneasy calm that has taken hold in Syrian villages inhabited by Shiites near Lebanon’s northeastern border appears to be a lull before the storm, amid fears of renewed hostilities pitting the Hezbollah-backed Popular Committees and the Syrian army against the rebel Free Syrian Army and other armed groups.
Several Syrian villages inhabited by Lebanese Shiites, such as Zeita, Hamam and Safsafeh, have formed a front against the villages of Nahriya, Abu Houry, Saqrja, Burhaniya and Radwaniya, where FSA fighters are located.
Last week, three fighters and 12 Syrian rebels were killed during fierce fighting in the Syrian town of Al-Qusair near the border, according to a Lebanese security source.
The precarious calm on the border comes amid FSA claims Thursday that one of its battalions had targeted two Hezbollah bases, one in and the other in the city of Hermel, in retaliation for the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. However, the FSA allegations have been denied by a Lebanese security source in Hermel.
The strict security measures taken by Hezbollah’s political and military commands in are evident as party members escort journalists on a tour of Shiite villages and indicate that the villages are living in an atmosphere of war. The streets are nearly empty and damage inflicted on cars confirms recent fighting. Sand barricades and houses, which form a confrontation line with opposite villages, are ridden with bullets.
Tension has spread to the Lebanese towns of Sayyed Ali and near the border with Syria. The two towns are 15 km north of Hermel.
According to an independent source from the Shiite villages, the latest clashes between Hezbollah fighters and the FSA began after a reconnaissance patrol from the local Popular Committees was ambushed by the FSA when it approached houses controlled by Syrian rebels in the village of Abu Houry, killing three patrol members and wounding 13 others.
During the clashes, two artillery shells fired by the FSA landed in Al-Qasr, while another landed but did not explode in Hawsh Sayyed Ali, in what appeared to be a warning message to residents in the two Lebanese villages.
Last week’s battles came after a series of clashes, which began between the two sides last July, left 15 people dead and nine members missing from the Popular Committees and Hezbollah. In nearby Sunni villages, some 100 people were killed and a large number were wounded, including FSA fighters.
This week’s clashes present the risk of renewed fighting between residents in the opposing villages, especially in light of statements made in the past few days by FSA commanders threatening to strike Hezbollah positions in Lebanon within 48 hours if the party does not stop interfering in Syria.
The FSA commanders also directly threatened Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
The confrontation line between the Popular Committees fighters in Syrian Shiite villages and the FSA is about 12 km wide and runs up to 5 km deep into Syria. It includes more than 20 villages rich with fertile land, owned by Lebanese Shiites living in the Syrian town of Al-Qusair.
Although there are an estimated 30,000 Lebanese Shiites living in a cluster of 20 Syrian villages near the Lebanese border, many have fled east to Hermel, Baalbek and Beirut because of violence. The residents of these villages belong to well-known families in the Hermel region such as Zeaiter, Jaafar, Hamadeh, Nasreddine, Saqr, Assaf, Safwan, Badawi, Jamal and Rahhal.
Khaled Jaafar, one of the chiefs from the Jaafar clan who lives in Al-Qasr, said that the clashes in Shiite villages inside Syrian territory began last summer when FSA members kidnapped Khodr Jaafar and in Zeita, prompting the Jaafar clan to abduct 32 Syrians in response.
The tit-for-tat kidnappings finally resulted in the declaration of a truce, and the formation of a reconciliation committee between the Hermel region’s clans and their neighbors in Syrian villages, who support the Syrian opposition.
The committee worked to secure the release of abducted people on both sides and declared the truce, whereby civilians would be spared and allowed to cultivate their lands and continue their normal way of life.
“Regretfully, the renewal of kidnappings revived tension, shattered the truce and led to last week’s clashes, during which shells fired by the FSA landed in the towns of Al-Qasr and Hawsh Sayyed Ali inside Lebanese territory,” Jaafar said.
He added that the channels of communication between clans in the Shiite villages and the residents of the Syrian villages have been cut off, especially after gunmen from the Syrian opposition arrived in the area.
According to Jaafar, the clans of the Hermel region and the Shiite villages inside Syrian territory had sought the assistance of Hezbollah to help them confront “armed groups from the Syrian opposition which have turned into a regular army.”
Without Hezbollah’s help, the residents and clans in Shiite villages would not have been unable to defend themselves, their homes and properties, he said.
Jaafar, apprehensive of the grave developments, fears that the situation might flare up into a major battle at any moment and lead to bloodshed between rival groups on both sides. In this case, Hezbollah will not be able to control the situation, he said.
In the event of renewed hostilities, Jaafar said that the Hermel clans will attack areas supportive of the Syrian opposition in an attempt to expel them.
“The Hermel clans are capable of doing this because they have armed groups in the Popular Committee,” which have begun preparing for a wider confrontation with the Syrian opposition groups in the area, Jaafar said.
Ali Zeaiter, the head of the reconciliation committee, ruled out the possibility of arranging a sustainable truce between the two sides.
“Achieving a permanent truce in the region has become almost impossible, given that the development of the military situation and the confrontation between the two sides has gone beyond the limits of residents in villages on both sides,” Zeaiter said.
He added that the fate of a truce now depends on the general situation and decisions made by top leaders in both the Syrian opposition and the Hezbollah leadership.