By ANNE BARNARDOCT. 27, 2014
A volunteer patrolling a Christian village on the border between Syria and Lebanon. Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
LABWEH, Lebanon — Recent outbreaks of fighting and growing sectarian tensions in northern Lebanon have heightened fears that the civil war in neighboring Syria is spilling over with new momentum, threatening the country’s fragile stability.
Over the past several days, clashes have roiled the northern coastal city of Tripoli, as the Lebanese Army carried out its most intense operations in years against Sunni militants there. And danger is brewing in another area further inland with its own turbulent history, the Bekaa Valley, which is straining under newly intensified sectarian tensions along the Syrian border.
For three years, the northern Bekaa Valley, the birthplace of Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite paramilitary group, has been warding off ripples of war from Syria, just over the mountains. But in recent weeks, encroaching skirmishes have made the area feel more like a front line.
That foreboding was underscored in recent days as Sunni insurgents from Syria fired rockets at the mostly Shiite village of Labweh in retaliation for the Lebanese Army’s operations in Tripoli.
Even before the new violence in Tripoli, the northern Bekaa was on edge. Just up the hill from Labweh is the mainly Sunni town of Arsal, a Lebanese border enclave that has become a volatile outpost of the Syrian conflict jutting into Lebanon. Once a sleepy village, Arsal is now a crowded city of 90,000, its population trebled by overwhelmingly Sunni Syrian refugees.
Sunni insurgents mix easily there, periodically shelling the mostly Shiite towns in the valley below. Arsal’s leaders have openly supported the three-year insurgency against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who is closely allied with Hezbollah.
Fear and anger in Labweh and neighboring Shiite villages deepened in August, when open war erupted in Arsal between the Lebanese Army and insurgents, some from the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and others with the even more extreme Islamic State. The insurgents captured 30 soldiers and have since beheaded three, all Shiites. Lately, insurgents have carried out probing attacks near previously quiet Shiite settlements.
Now the expanding border conflict threatens to engulf residents of Shiite, Christian and Sunni villages, testing their resolve to stay out of sectarian conflict – a resolve they see as the first line of defense holding Lebanon together.
Shiites and Christians are increasingly alarmed by extremists among the insurgents, sometimes describing the threat in sectarian terms. They are dusting off rifles and organizing volunteer security patrols. But for now, they say, they are heeding leaders in Hezbollah, in their towns and in the army, who say they must refrain from communal revenge, that sectarian violence in Lebanon is exactly what the enemy wants.
“As a Shiite I feel threatened,” said Fayyad, a skinny young man who sat rescently at a shawarma shop in Labweh, keeping wary watch on gravel trucks rumbling down the road from Arsal.
Nodding to indicate the intersection where that road meets the highway to Beirut, he gave it an ominous name, one used for the dividing line between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut during the civil war that tore Lebanon apart a generation ago.
“It’s a Green Line,” he said.
Here in the northern Bekaa, Shiite, Christian and Sunni villages were intertwined, intermarrying and sharing schools and a range of businesses, including smuggling and agriculture. Life was more enmeshed with the similarly diverse Syrian region around the city of Homs than the more distant Lebanese capital, Beirut.
But now, like others in Labweh, Fayyad views Arsal’s people as traitors.
“We can hurt those people, but we don’t want to,” he said, as a friend listened, a pistol tucked in his waistband. But restraint was getting harder, Fayyad added. Above the intersection hung portraits of two young men from Labweh, killed in a Nusra Front ambush of a Hezbollah observation post two weeks earlier outside the nearby Shiite village of Brital.
“It’s hard to see friends die,” Fayyad said, giving only his first name because of concerns about his safety. “We don’t have anything to lose. We are not ready to do anything individually, but we are waiting for orders.”
Labweh’s mayor, Ramez Amhaz, called his town Lebanon’s bulwark.
“Even if we lost 1,000 dead from Labweh, we will not fall into this internal conflict,” he said. “We in Labweh protected the civil peace of Lebanon. We preserved Arsal’s people. We didn’t let any villagers hurt them, although there was resentment from the people, because they hold the Arsalis accountable.”
Mr. Amhaz cooperates on security with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s strongest military and political force, but politically leans communist. He said he works hard to calm local families of captured soldiers. Angry residents periodically block roads, snarling major routes to protest the soldiers’ plight.
The mayor tells everyone not to blame all Arsal residents; that the town has an “honorable history” of sacrifices in conflicts with Israel, and has been “kidnapped” by insurgents.
But two men visiting his home interrupted, saying it is Sunnis who spur civil conflict, by harboring insurgents.
“We hate this sectarian language,” the mayor said with an apologetic shrug. “But we want to say things as they are.”
Critics of Hezbollah say its intervention in Syria dragged the area into war, while supporters say that without it, they might have already been invaded. Regardless, war feels closer lately.
Later that night, red illumination rounds lit the sky as shells crashed north of Labweh. Dozens of Hezbollah fighters massed in flak vests as one crew stopped unfamiliar cars, backing up the army against insurgents they said were trying to move down the mountain.
Even by day, fearful soda truck drivers have stopped going to Arsal, where police and soldiers are absent. They leave crates in Labweh for Arsal’s shop owners to pick up. To the Labweh mayor’s wife, Linda, it seemed each village had closed in on itself.
“People have changed,” she said. “If I have common interests with you, we will be friends. If not, no.”
A 35-year-old Hezbollah fighter who briefly detained journalists during the night battle expressed sorrow that he could no longer visit the school in Arsal where he taught for years, adding, “It has gotten worse, the hatred.”
Arsal residents say they are being collectively punished for their stance on Syria. Always poor, Arsal is burdened with refugees, squeezed by security restrictions on deliveries from its quarries, and shelled by Syrian forces. Across the Bekaa, about 5,000 refugees have been evicted by angry Lebanese hosts since the Arsal clashes. The Christian town of Ras Baalbek has organized volunteer patrols and keeps Syrian refugees under a 14-hour curfew.
Brital, a Shiite town south of Labweh, suffered the biggest recent scare, showing how quickly things can escalate. Hearing of the attack on the Hezbollah post, hundreds of village men rushed toward the border carrying the hunting rifles thatmost families keep.
Ghada Ismail was in her curtain shop watching two men quarrel outside when a car pulled up with news of the attack. The men stopped arguing and headed to fight. Ms. Ismail sent her 14-year-old son.
“If I don’t, who will defend us?” she said.
Another youth described crossing the barren hills, expecting to kill or be killed as he passed a cleft between striated cliffs where, he emphasized, some Shiites believe the Mahdi, a messianic figure, will reappear.
He had never shot a gun, he said, but “when you see all the people going, young and old, of course you go.”
The attack surprised the Hezbollah fighters, who, three residents said, were preparing a holiday dinner. Seven were killed. When the townspeople arrived, the militants were gone.
But Brital remains mobilized. Men declare themselves ready to fight, and women watch from windows for strange cars.
Ahmed Saleh, 64, a retired army sergeant, called residents steadfast “sons of Hussein,” a revered figure betrayed and killed in early Islamic succession battles that prompted the Sunni-Shiite split.
“We were martyred 1,500 years ago and we are still martyrs,” he said.
As for Arsal, said his daughter Mariam, 27, “We hate them. They betrayed the people. They betrayed Lebanon.”