The Lebanese army has been called on to contain mounting violence in northeastern Lebanon as Syrian rebels cross the border after the fall of their stronghold over the weekend.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group fighting alongside the Syrian regime, spearheaded the capture of the Yabroud stronghold from the rebels.
But, as the conflict spills over into Lebanon – with a suicide car bomb attack, rockets striking Shiite villages, and security forces pursuing other suspected car bombs, all in the past 24 hours – Hezbollah isn't eager to continue the fight against Syrian rebels on Lebanese soil, which could even further inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
That leaves Lebanon's army with the unenviable task of securing the area, striking a balance between preventing attacks by Sunni militants and avoiding enraging Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels.
The exodus of Syrian rebels into the Arsal area, a bastion of support for Syrian rebels, has prompted Hezbollah allied-parliamentarian Walid Sukkariyah to call on the army to "secure the border," while Prime Minister Tammam Salam told the army to "take all necessary measures to control the situation."
The northern Bekaa Valley is home to Shiite supporters of Hezbollah, which has played a crucial role in Syria's defense of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. But the valley also includes Sunni populated areas, the largest of which is Arsal, a remote town close to the border.
Arsal is separated from the border with Syria by 10 miles of desolate mountains dotted with isolated farms, and is criss-crossed with smuggling trails. Syrian rebels use the area as a safe haven.
Lebanese troops man checkpoints on the tracks immediately surrounding Arsal that lead to the border. But the military has not yet deployed on the frontier east of Arsal to seal off the cross-border trails. That would almost certainly trigger an armed confrontation with Syrian rebels holed up in the area, which could encourage attacks against the army elsewhere in Lebanon.
Some Lebanese Sunnis view the army with suspicion and accuse it of cooperating too closely with Hezbollah. They contrast the army's arrest of Lebanese Sunnis who attempt to slip across the border to join rebel factions with the indifference to Hezbollah militants who deploy into Syria.
The Syrian rebels, reeling from defeat, have been swift to exact revenge against Hezbollah.
On Sunday night, a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle in the Shiite village of Nabi Othman, three miles north west of Arsal. Two Hezbollah men who intercepted the car on suspicions that it might contain a bomb, were killed in the blast, along with a civilian woman. Eleven people were wounded.
Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a “quick response” to Hezbollah’s “bragging” over the capture of Yabroud. Another claim of responsibility came from a group calling itself the Free Sunni Brigade of Baalbek, a large town in the northern Bekaa. The group warned Shiites in a Twitter post to “prepare for the transfer of the battle of Yabroud into Lebanese territory.”
The attack was the 10th suicide car bombing to strike a Shiite area in Lebanon since mid-November.
On Monday morning, Lebanese troops discovered an abandoned vehicle carrying an estimated 370 pounds of explosive parked near the village of Fakiha, four miles north of Arsal. The vehicle was destroyed by a soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade at it. Security forces were on the hunt in the afternoon in the same area for a second vehicle suspected of carrying a bomb.
Later on Monday, three rockets hit the Shiite village of Labwe, which lies three miles west of Arsal, wounding one person. Labwe has been struck several times in recent weeks by rockets fired by Al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian groups in retaliation for Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria.
The army is presently caught up in a fresh bout of factional fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, where Sunni gunmen have been battling their Alawite rivals for the past three days. A soldier was killed in Tripoli on Saturday night when militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at his armored personnel carrier.