With a small flick of the hand and a faint smile on his face, Mahmoud Jamaleddine, a chief warrant officer in the Lebanese police, waved this reporter through a checkpoint on the lofty Dahr al-Baydar pass in the mountains separating Beirut from the Bekaa Valley.
Some 30 minutes later, the 20-year career policeman was dead, his checkpoint blackened by fire and smoke and awash with burning cars. Jamaleddine was the sole fatality of the first suicide car bomb attack to strike Lebanon in nearly three months.
“You will see, they will blame us for this,” says Abu Khalil, a volunteer ambulance driver and supporter of Syrian rebel groups, as he watches the news on television in his home in Arsal.
Friday’s suicide attack, in which 32 people were also wounded, not only has revived fears in Lebanon, but has also refocused attention on Arsal and the mountains to the north and east where an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Syrian rebel fighters hide out in caves, old shepherd huts or foxholes dug in cherry orchards. The fighters were pushed out of the adjacent Qalamoun region north of Damascus between November and March during an offensive led by Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah organization, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Arsal’s population of some 38,000 has almost tripled with the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing fighting across the nearby border. Most of the refugees live in sprawling tented encampments on the edge of town. Although Arsal is a bedrock of support for the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, tensions have been building between residents and refugees due to increased lawlessness and competition for jobs.
Among the rebel fighters are gangs who operate under the banner of resistance to the Assad regime but are little more than kidnappers and thieves seeking to profit from the chaos of war. In the past eight months, kidnap gangs have abducted five foreign journalists visiting Arsal – two Italians, two Swedes and a Dane – all of whom were released after the payment of ransoms. Local Lebanese have suffered from abductions and shootings.
“The organized rebel groups who fight in Syria are disciplined and we support them but there are troublemakers and thieves among them and we have issued warnings that we will not tolerate this,” says Abu Khalil.
Men in the mountains
Syrian Rebel fighters say they are aware of local sensitivities and stay out of the way in their mountain redoubts.
“Life is very hard in the mountains. Some people sleep in cars, others beneath trees. We only come here [to Arsal] to visit our families,” says Abu Zeid, a unit leader with the rebel Muatassim Billah Brigade.
One of the rebel factions, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, recently issued a statement warning any member of the group that harassed civilians would be punished, according to local residents. However, Syrian civilians also are falling victim to the militants. On June 11, two Syrian refugees were shot dead and another two kidnapped from a camp on the edge of Arsal. Abu Khalil says that Jabhat al-Nusra also abducted four people, including a barber and a woman, who were accused of collaborating with the Assad regime.
"They were never seen again," Abu Khalil says, inferring that the four were executed. "When it comes to Syrians, that's their business, but they are not allowed to cause problems with us [Lebanese]."
Some nearby villages, especially those populated by Christians who do not share Arsal’s support for the Syrian armed opposition, have taken matters into their own hands by establishing local defense militias to guard against the militants in the mountains to the east.
Residents of Ras Baalbek, a Christian village five miles north of Arsal, no longer venture into the mountains which rise sharply at the eastern edge of the village. Several residents have been kidnapped. On June 10, eight people were abducted from a quarry east of Ras Baalbek. All but one have been released in exchange for payment. Volunteers from the local defense force man small observation posts of piled rock and camouflage netting on hills overlooking the village to monitor activity.
Threat to Christians
“This is a Christian village and we are under threat. We are being targeted by the Takfiris because we are Christians,” says Rifaat Nasrallah, the commander of the local defense militia. Takfiri is a term used to describe extremist Sunnis who regard as apostates anyone that does share their austere interpretation of Islam.
Unusually for a Christian, Nasrallah is an ardent supporter of the Shiite Hezbollah – he even has pictures of Hezbollah leaders on the walls of his sitting room. He admits liaising closely with Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, all of whom have a vested interest in containing the rebels and militants in the nearby mountains.
“I am one of the people that believes Hezbollah is fighting for our existence,” he says. “We have no choice but to respect [Hezbollah]. I feel that they are sacrificing themselves for our sakes.”
Between November and the end of March, Shiite, Hezbollah-supporting areas of Lebanon were struck by 11 suicide car bombs, killing 58 people and wounding more than 300. The bomb attacks were claimed by radical Sunni groups as a response to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Some of the car bombs were assembled in Qalamoun, before the regime took over the area in March, and were driven into Lebanon via Arsal.
Abu Khalil’s prediction that Arsal would be connected to Friday’s suicide bomb attack proved correct shortly afterwards when news reports said that an identity card for Tariq Jebawi, a resident of the town, was discovered at the scene. It turns out that Jebawi was alive in Arsal at the time of the bombing and that the id was a forgery. But it also suggests that the perpetrators knew Jebawi and therefore could have an Arsal connection.