Encircled and alone, Lebanese village braces for Syrian assault

Tfail, located on a spit of land that extends into Syria, is surrounded by Syrian forces on three sides. Hezbollah, a regime ally, sits on the fourth side.

Nicholas Blanford
Lebanese soldiers inspect Red Cross ambulances April 22, 2014 as they return from a relief mission to the village of Tufayl in eastern Lebanon which is under threat of an incursion by the Syrian army.

Residents of a tiny, isolated village in eastern Lebanon are bracing for a feared incursion by Syrian troops and Hezbollah, with nowhere to flee because their only escape route has been sealed off.   

An estimated 5,000 Syrian refugees and suspected rebel fighters have fled to Tfail from the adjacent Qalamoun region of Syria, which the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently wrested from rebel control. Surrounded to the north, east, and south by Syrian territory and to the west by mountains under the control of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Tfail's Sunni residents nervously await the future.

Hezbollah closed all routes into Tfail in the past year, and a week ago the village was shelled by the Syrian Army, wounding several people and damaging houses.

“We have nothing in Tfail. There is no water, no medical help, no police, no army, no electricity, very little food. We are cut off and cannot go anywhere,” says Basil Sayyed, a Syrian resident of Tfail.

Tfail is the most remote village in Lebanon, lying at the tip of a finger of territory that pokes eastward into Syria (map), just north of Damascus. Its 3,000 residents, a mix of Lebanese and Syrian nationals, shop and work in nearby Syrian towns. Traveling to the nearest Lebanese village requires a lengthy journey along a 13-mile winding dirt track across barren and rugged mountains.

On Tuesday, the Lebanese army set up a temporary border crossing at Ram al-Marjouha, a windswept, sun-soaked pass 7,400 feet high, for a relief column of Red Cross ambulances and trucks carrying food, diesel fuel, and mattresses. Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouq brokered the agreement over the weekend with Wafiq Safa, a top Hezbollah security official.

Hezbollah at the helm

Hezbollah controls the nearby mountains, and some of the adjacent valleys contain Hezbollah training camps, one of them briefly visible through a gap in the mountains along the rough stone track that led to the Ram al-Marjouha pass.

Hezbollah fighters have recently set up positions in the mountains west of Tufayl to prevent incursions by Syrian rebels and car bombs. Shiite areas of Lebanon have been struck by suicide car bomb attacks several times in the last few months in retaliation for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

As the Red Cross medics, aid workers, and soldiers gathered at the Ram al-Marjouha pass in preparation for the journey east to Tufayl, Hezbollah men watched from their outpost of bulldozed earth walls and green military tents. They have set up several visible firing positions, constructed from blocks of pale limestone and smothered with camouflage netting, on the mountainside. Fighters riding ATVs kicked up dust and small stones as they roared up freshly made tracks on the mountain slopes on either side of the pass, presumably to more military positions.

The Hezbollah men were clearly uncomfortable with the unusual presence of Lebanese troops, Red Cross medics, and journalists at their secluded mountain-top redoubt.

“No pictures, no pictures,” one of them says, admonishing a photographer who was pointing a camera at the men.

The earthen barricades blocking the track were removed to facilitate the relief operation. Tfail officials who accompanied the convoy were careful to thank Hezbollah for its cooperation.

“The presence of the [Lebanese] security forces here today was the only way [the convoy] could go to Tfail,” says Sheikh Hussein Ghali, a Sunni cleric from the village. "We want to thank Hezbollah and the people of Brital for allowing this aid to go through."

Brital is a nearby Shiite village, one of whose residents was kidnapped several months ago by suspected Syrian militants coming from the Tfail area.

Brief relief

The aid convoy received a warm welcome in Tfail, with residents slaughtering several sheep in a traditional token of honor.

Government officials announced that any Lebanese citizen was free to leave, but that Syrian nationals, including the refugees, had to remain behind. Contrary to expectations, almost all the residents opted to stay.

“People are worried that the Syrian Army will come in, but they still don’t want to leave. If they leave they could lose their possessions or animals,” says Wael Doqu, a resident of Tfail who lives in Beirut. He traveled to the village with the aid convoy to bring back his parents. “We felt like we wanted to stay as well. But hopefully we will be able to return soon.”

As the convoy returned to the Ram al-Marjouha staging post, Lebanese troops closely inspected the vehicles for explosives and weapons as customs officials wrote down the details of those who had departed Tfail. The Red Cross ambulances carried nine casualties from the village, all but one of them Syrians who had been wounded in fighting in Syria.

By evening, the relief operation was finished and the track was expected to be sealed with earth barricades once more.

Tfail remains in a precarious position. Sources close to Hezbollah said that the group is preparing to kill or capture any Syrian rebels remaining in the area, and locals say there are occasional clashes between Hezbollah fighters and Syrian militants in the mountains.

One local Shiite at the Ram al-Marjouha pass pointed to a rocky mountainside studded with juniper trees three miles to the east.

“Daesh are based in that hill and they fire rockets from near there,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), one of the most extreme militant groups operating in Syria.

Syrian rebel fighters have fired rockets at Shiite areas of the Bekaa Valley from near Tfail on multiple occasions in recent months. The latest barrage came Wednesday morning, when two rockets launched from the Tfail area exploded near Brital without causing casualties.

It is unclear if Hezbollah will permit further aid missions to Tfail. If the route to Tfail remains sealed, residents could find themselves stuck in a war zone with no means of escape.

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