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The Lebanese Border Town in the Middle of Syria's Civil War

Arsal, a town long known as a hub for smugglers, finds itself the target of jihadists, security agencies, the Syrian regime, and refugees.
March 6, 2014, 9:10pm
Photos by James Haines Young

Long before Syria's civil war broke out, the Lebanese border town of Arsal was known as a hub of smuggling activity. The surrounding mountainous terrain is perfect for sneaking contraband of all sorts between Lebanon and neighboring Syria — and that's why Arsal has become a focal point for Lebanese security agencies, Hezbollah, refugees, foreign jihadists, Syrian opposition fighters, and the Syrian regime.


This week, Syrian warplanes fired missiles at the outskirts of the town shortly before the Nusra Front launched grenades into Arsal from across the border in Syria. Arsal is the lone Sunni Muslim village in Lebanon’s predominately Shiite Bekaa Valley, and the local population of about 35,000 is sympathetic to opposition forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad — a combination that makes it a target several times over.

A man I meet named Abu Hussein is perched on a couch in his modest apartment in central Arsal, sitting on his feet while smoking a cigarette. Four of his brothers are currently in Yabroud, just across the border, fighting against Syrian forces with the Farouk Brigades. Hussein isn't avoiding the conflict, however — he's busy smuggling fighters in and out of Syria.

“We avoid the main roads,” Hussein explained. He instead navigates a rocky back road that can take well over an hour, even though Yabroud is only about 18 miles from Arsal. Hussein claims that he doesn’t smuggle weapons — just men. They enter Syria to fight, and return to Lebanon to rest and recover.

But the unsecured border, which is about 40 miles long, has also been used by others, including a massive number of refugees that have effectively doubled Arsal's population, and a steady supply of explosives that have been used in more than 10 suicide attacks in Lebanon.

“The Lebanese state is completely absent,” Ahmad Fliti, Arsal’s Deputy Mayor, told me. He sat behind his desk, looking exasperated at having to answer questions about his village’s role in the attacks for what was no doubt not the first time. “The Lebanese Army controls nine points [in and] around Arsal, but they don’t have men on the border. This creates problems for all of us."


Fliti said that for as long as he could remember, the Syrian Army monitored the border between Arsal and Syria. “A bird couldn’t fly past without paying a bribe,” he said. Since the start of the war three years ago, however, Syrian forces have fled, leaving the border wide open.

Arsal Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti

Beirut is about 75 miles from Arsal; the trip usually takes a couple hours. But following a string of bombings in and around Beirut, security checkpoints have been intensified and the drive time has increased.

Apart from the permanent checkpoint at the entry to Arsal, there is an army-intelligence checkpoint further down the road and another one run by Hezbollah in the nearby Shiite village of Labwe. Guards at each of these checkpoints ask for identification and the car’s registration while they search the trunk and test the car’s windows to make sure there are no concealed explosives. There are another half dozen checkpoints on the way to Beirut run by either the Lebanese Armed Forces or the Lebanese Internal Security Forces.

According to reports from local media, stolen cars are often driven to a Shiite village in the Bekaa Valley called Britel. From there the vehicles pass into western Syria, where some are equipped with explosives in places like Yabroud, before they return to Lebanon through Arsal.

Aram Nerguizian, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington DC, said that this is probably made possible in part by the network of dirt roads linking Arsal to towns in the Syrian al-Qalamoun mountain range.


“The region is arid and lacks any real-word infrastructure, and includes all the complexities of a region where Lebanon and Syria do not agree on where the border actually is,” Nerguizian said. Nerguizian recently told an audience of policy makers that the “porous border and very limited state presence in the north … has resulted in as many as 15,000 Syrian rebel fighters and sympathizers of the opposition finding breathing room in places near and around Arsal and the north.”

According to Fliti, the bombs are smuggled through by “people who have no cause or creed” other than financial gain. “The suicide mentality doesn’t exist here in Arsal,” Fliti added.

However, reports from local media claim that problems in the village are linked to a local religious figure, Sheikh Mustafa Hojeiri. Also known as Abu Taqiyeh, Hojeiri has been accused of coordinating operations for the al Qaeda–linked Nusra Front in Lebanon. Fliti denied that this was the case, and instead focused on the Lebanese government's inability — or unwillingness — to secure the region.

“If the Lebanese Army put five checkpoints on the border they could get it under control,” Fliti said. “I don’t want to accuse the army, but the government doesn’t want to catch [the explosives] coming in. They want to catch them going out.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Farouk Brigades are part of the Islamic Front. This is not the case.