Northern Bekaa Villages Threatened by Syria War

Article Summary
A Lebanese area in the northern Bekaa region has suffered its first deaths from shelling from the Syrian side, as pro- and anti-regime forces try to control a strategic area in Syria, writes Saadah Ouloua.

For the border villages of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali, what followed April 14 is different than what preceded it. This is true even for Hermel, which is relatively far from the battle raging near the Syrian town of al-Qusair, adjacent to the North Bekaa.

The martyrdom of Ali Kataya and the child Abbas Kheireddine did not go unnoticed. The people of the region feel directly threatened by the war in Syria, and they wonder where the whole situation is headed.

Before last Sunday, missiles and rockets used to fall on al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali from time to time, but they never caused deaths. Two days after the incident, the people’s movement is still apprehensive. Schools in al-Qasr have closed and some of the town’s inhabitants have fled to the countryside. Some shops remain closed. Kheireddine’s family did not receive condolences at their home, which is near the border, but at their relatives’ home, which is outside the town.

Syrian migrant workers in the area have also been affected. Some have avoided leaving their homes because of the anti-Syrian reprisals that followed the deaths. Even though the reprisals were deemed individual acts, many Syrian migrant workers have decided to leave.

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The people of the area wonder where the situation is headed after the Syrian opposition threatened to bomb Hermel, despite military information that they lack the arms to do that. The areas of Saqarja and al-Burhaniyyah, which are seven kilometers deep in Lebanon, are on the demarcation line opposite Zaita in Syria.

On the other hand, there are reports that Syrian gunmen have taken control of Vozlika rockets from the Syrian army, following the confrontation near Dabaa military airport in Homs. Vozlika rockets have a range of about 15 kilometers, which is enough to reach Hermel if the opposition fires them from bases near the border, such as the villages of al-Nuhriya, across the border from Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali.

But according to reports from the field, the gunmen are unable to move heavy weapons at will into the border villages of al-Dabaa, Saqarja, al-Burhaniyyah and al-Nuhriya, because the regular Syrian army controls most of the roads connecting those villages with Qusair and the opposition-controlled areas of Homs. So changing the rules of the game at the border will not be easy, especially since the popular committees in the villages loyal to the regime are aware how serious such a change would be.

The gunmen of the Syrian opposition have threatened to bomb Hermel after the fierce battle fought by the popular committees in the villages of al-Hawz, al-Aqrabiyya, al-Simkaniyya, al-Na’im and eastern al-Smaqiyyat to recover Tall al-Nabi Mandu, which the gunmen had seized from the Syrian army.

Tall al-Nabi Mandu is strategic and whoever controls it can fire on most Syrian border villages in the area. That the inhabitants of pro-regime villages fled after the opposition seized Tall al-Nabi Mandu points to the site’s strategic importance. Some analysts say that if Tall al-Nabi Mandu remains under the control of the Farouq Brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra, pro-regime villages would fall one after the other, thus opening up the whole area from Tall al-Nabi Mandu to Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon. It would also place the coastal highway to Tartous and Latakia — a highway that the Syrian army uses for supplies — at the opposition’s mercy.

Moreover, Tall al-Nabi Mandu is connected to opposition-controlled Arjoun and al-Burhaniyyah. Al-Burhaniyyah, and its sister Saqarja, are on the demarcation line opposite Zaita, a key pro-regime village that the opposition wishes to seize, as that would allow the sectarian, political and military cleansing of the area and allow the recovery of the Jousie border crossing, which is opposite Mashari’ al-Qaa and Arsal in Lebanon. Those two areas are near the Damascus countryside. This is why both sides are fighting to control Tall al-Nabi Mandu despite the heavy human losses.

The inhabitants of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali wonder where the Lebanese government is in all of this. They said that some Western countries condemned the bombing of their villages even before Lebanese officials did. The Lebanese government is taking the matter to the Arab League, where the Syrian opposition controls Syria’s seats, despite the fact that the Arab League decided to openly arm the Free Syrian Army — the side that shelled Lebanese territory!

Mohammed Nasereddin, a city official in Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali, said that 20 families fled the Syrian part of the area to the Lebanese part and that nobody is asking about them. The people of Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali are suffering from a severe economic crisis after the “border trade” — another word for smuggling — stopped due to the Syrian crisis.

The people are also unable to reach their agricultural land, most of which is located within Syrian territory. So the fruit harvest has gone bad, and they are using the fruit as fuel to heat their homes. The inhabitants have also welcomed tens of displaced Syrians as well as the women and children of Safsafa, which is located in Syria but is inhabited by Lebanese people. Safsafa is adjacent to opposition controlled al-Nuhriya. The women and children left Safsafa, but the men stayed behind to defend their village.

The former mayor of al-Qasr, Dr. Ali Zeaiter, said that the civilians in al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyid Ali fear that things will deteriorate. He said that some al-Qasr inhabitants, especially those who have homes nearby, have fled.

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Found in: syrian, border, bekaa, agriculture
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