AARSAL, Lebanon — The Syrian civil war has spawned another violent but low-grade conflict that pits village against village, clan against clan and Muslim sect against sect among Lebanese living on the border.
Escalating retaliations have triggered kidnapping and ambushes, and have left partisans captured, wounded and dead.
Consider the hard-edged tone set Tuesday, when the previously little-known Brigade of the Four Martyrs gathered reporters to announce that it planned to murder the mayor of the Bekaa Valley town of Aarsal. The predominantly Sunni Muslim residents of Aarsal strongly support the rebel forces that are challenging President Bashar Assad’s regime in neighboring Syria.
The brigade is widely thought to have ties to the powerful Jaafar clan of Shiite Muslims, a sect that's generally sided with the Assad regime. The militant group made its threat against the Aarsal mayor, Ali Hujeiri, just days after gunmen in nearby Labweh wounded him, killed one of his relatives and briefly abducted another man.
That attack came as the mayor was returning from an exchange of hostages between Labweh and Aarsal, a gone-wrong encounter sure to spur countless more. It also appears to have come in retaliation for the unsolved murders of two members of the Jaafar clan, and two of their friends, just outside Aarsal in June.
Relationships between neighboring Sunni and Shiite villages in the Bekaa Valley have deteriorated gravely over political and personal grievances. The area, which sits on the Syrian border, is a notoriously lawless place where disputes are settled not by government, but by gun.
Aarsal is a brown town of cinder-block houses and shops in the foothills of a treeless, dusty mountain range. It’s home to about 25,000 people surrounded by rugged hills. Labweh is the next town over, similar but for its politics and loyalties.
There’s little sign that Lebanon’s politically hamstrung authorities are attempting to arrest any suspects in the killings of the four in June. Meanwhile, the Jaafar clan, which boasts of a tribal code of honor that requires revenge, has said that it eventually will kill the men whom it holds responsible. The Jaafars claim that Aarsal and its mayor are sheltering the killers of their kin.
“We will never let him rest,” a masked leader, claiming to speak for the group, told a local television station Monday night. “If I die, my sons will carry on.”
Hujeiri has denied any relationship between Aarsal and the killings. He’s cut a flamboyant figure during the Syrian war, brokering hostage swaps and essentially turning his otherwise sleepy Lebanese border town into an epicenter of rebel activity in Lebanon.
With a deep economic dependence on cross-border smuggling of diesel fuel and other items that can be found cheaply in Syria for illegal resale in Lebanon, Aarsal has long-standing tribal and family ties to Sunni families on the Syrian side of the border.
Those ties, and a penchant for cross-border trafficking, have turned Aarsal into a major logistics hub for rebel movements that operate in Syria.
At an Islamic hospital funded by the community in Aarsal, new ambulances and SUVs regularly cross the border in an effort to aid wounded refugees and rebel fighters escaping Syrian troops.
“We consider this to be our family and our war just as it is theirs,” according to Abu Omar Hujeiri, a self-described coordinator for refugees and rebels looking for shelter in Lebanon who’s a relative of the mayor’s.
With its history as a smuggling hub, Aarsal had long been left to manage its own affairs. Weak Lebanese law enforcement authorities rarely have the manpower, training or equipment to monitor the area for illegal activity.
Occasional raids of the town by the Lebanese army since the revolutionary fighting began in Syria often have turned deadly for both sides.
Mayor Hujeiri faces a number of arrest warrants issued by military judges in Lebanon for an incident in which two soldiers were killed during one such raid.
And Syrian ground troops, warplanes and helicopters regularly strike what they claim are rebel targets well inside the Lebanese border in the area. They often kill Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees along with rebel fighters.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.