WADI KHALED, Lebanon — On a small dirt road near the village of Knaisse Akkar, in the northern valley of Wadi Khaled, plumes of smoke can intermittently be seen on the horizon, rising from the Syrian city of Qusair. A few locals lean on the concrete wall talking while gazing into the distance.
In the early hours when shells occasionally make their way into the valley, piercing the morning calm, it is not uncommon to see young men on motorbikes heading up the same road to Knaisse Akkar, to return fire at an enemy that is in most likely out of range. Lebanese army presence can seem scarce on the ground.
Locals say there is no Free Syrian Army (FSA) activity in the valley, pointing instead to Arsal. Still, Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled is increasingly feeling the fallout as the conflict between the Syrian army backed by Hezbollah and the FSA escalates in Qusair.
More than 27,000 mainly Sunni Syrian refugees have made their way to Wadi Khaled since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, supplementing a pre-existing population of some 40,000 that already was among Lebanon’s poorest. Local civilians and municipal officials in the area, where support for the Syrian opposition is strong, speak of a dearth in national and international aid contributions to meet the growing humanitarian crisis. A lack of confidence in the Lebanese army’s ability to defend the community against cross-border shelling is also palpable.
Residents of Wadi Khalid and recent refugees alike speak with growing apprehension about the involvement of Hezbollah across the border.
Discussions of how Sunni families from Qusair — now refugees in Wadi Khaled — provided safe haven in their homes to Shiite refugees from the Bekaa and south Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war contrast markedly with descriptions of the current activity of the Lebanese Shiite party in their homeland. Rumors escalate that during their battles, many of the Lebanese Shiite group’s fighters carry “keys to paradise” around their necks — reminiscent of the Iranian Basiji boys during the Iran-Iraq war.
But it is developments in the hinterland area dividing the two countries that occupies the most conversation in Wadi Khaled.
Recent immigrants from Sunni villages along the border, many Lebanese citizens displaced during Lebanon’s own civil war, speak of being pushed out of their villages by regime pressure. The increased planting of mines along the border around the villages by Syrian troops coupled with the construction of a dirt barrier to serve as a demarcation line are physical representations of this increasing isolation.
Some in Wadi Khaled claim that the dirt barrier is a precursor to a section of road to be constructed, snaking up the Western flank of Syria’s border with Lebanon from the Hezbollah stronghold of Hermel in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley to the coastal cities of Tartus, Latakia, and Banias — often referred to as the Alawite heartland of the Assad regime.
“A week ago, the head of the Tal Kalakh security branch announced they will be building a dirt wall, which will have mines and barbed wire, to isolate our villages,” said Mohammad al-Oueshi, 41, pointing across to the villages of Oueishat and Tel Farah on the Syrian side of the valley. Oueshi left Oueishat a week ago. In the distance an old pickup truck can be seen snaking its way up the steep slope of the Syrian side of the valley toward the two villages collecting families before dropping them off at the bottom, from where they cross into Lebanon.
“We don’t have any access inside (Syria). If we want to visit a doctor or get food, we have to cross to Wadi Khaled. Some people tried to go to the neighboring villages but they didn’t come back. We don’t know what happened to them.”
Sitting in his office, Aysam Dawary, vice president of the Wadi Khaled municipality, reflects on recent developments along the border in Oueishat and Tel Farah.
“They are being forced into exile, a population of 4,000 — there is no UN assistance for them and nobody even acknowledges them and this problem,” said Dawary.
“We fear for their lives if they stay because the Syrian government is demanding they leave quickly.”
Dawary said that the increased planting of mines along the border has seen the infringement of Lebanese territory by Syrian regime troops on more than one occasion. He is skeptical about the Lebanese army’s ability to defend Wadi Khaled from further insurrections and shelling.
Dawary shrugged his shoulders: “There is no Lebanese army here? I don’t have confidence in the Lebanese army because the Lebanese government is following the Syrian regime and this stops the Lebanese army from functioning. They have capabilities but no power to exercise these capabilities because they are controlled by the politics.”
The sentiment is even echoed Mahmud (al-Musri), a retired army general who chose only to give his first name. He fought with the Lebanese army during the later period of the Lebanese civil war and later in clashes with the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in Nahr el-Bared in 2007.
“I am a son of the state, a retired soldier,” said Mahmud. “I have sons in the army.”
“But unfortunately the army cannot function because of Hezbollah’s control of the government in Lebanon.”
Another military man also spoke with Al-Monitor.
Sitting in the salon of a house in Wadi Khaled was “Abu Ahmad,” who defected from the Syrian army in July 2012 and became a general in the FSA. He brought his family to Wadi Khaled nine months ago but remains in contact with FSA units in Qusair and the wider Bab Amr area.
“(Qusair) is a strategic key. The most important areas for the regime are (Jabal) Sahiliya, Tartus and Homs, generally. Areas between Damascus and Sahiliya have turned into the main objective. Moreover, most of the villages near the border with Lebanon are Shiite and they want to take that part of the border.”
Abu Ahmad sees the current operations by the Syrian army along the border around Wadi Khaled as part and parcel of this process.
“Assad thinks it is a dangerous area for him. They consider the fact that there are many Syrian refugees here; meanwhile, people in this area support the Syrian opposition and that’s a risk (for the regime).”
“It is not possible to divide Syria in two parts,” continued Abu Ahmad before reflecting on the devolution of Syria’s civil conflict.
“When the revolution erupted peacefully, there was no discrimination based on religious affiliation. (Everybody) was against the oppressive regime, but now it is dividing the people.”
Martin Armstrong is a former feature writer for the Lebanese Daily Star currently based in Beirut. His work has been featured in publications including Open Democracy, VICE, Dazed and Confused, and the Chicago Tribune. On Twitter: @scotinbeirut