Druze on edge over jihadi incursion fears
Nicholas Blanford/The Daily Star/Nov. 15, 2014
AIHA, Lebanon: An air of unease stalks the picturesque Druze villages and towns clinging to the steep stony hills and mountains of the Rashaya district in southeast Lebanon. Recent fighting between Syrian Druze loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad and the militants of the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, on the other side of Mount Hermon from Rashaya has rattled nerves.
The two Lebanese and Syrian Druze communities lie only a few kilometers apart, separated by the imposing Mount Hermon which towers over the surrounding landscape, its lofty summit already dusted with the first of the winter snows.
“We are not sleeping comfortably at night. We are keeping an eye on everything,” said a middle-aged Druze sheikh, one of two dressed in black baggy trousers and white knitted skullcaps sitting on a wall in Aiha enjoying the morning sun.
The concern is that the fighting on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon could spill into Lebanon, similar to developments further north along the border in the area between Tfail and Arsal in the northern Bekaa, where Syrian rebel groups and militants have fought the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah.
Indeed, close attention has been paid to this remote southeast corner of the country in recent weeks. Even before last week’s outbreak of clashes near the Druze village of Arneh on the eastern slopes of Mount Hermon, there has been much speculation that extremist groups in Syria, namely the Nusra Front, could seek to gain a foothold in the Sunni town of Shebaa, 20 kilometers south of Aiha, replicating the situation found in the Arsal area where several hundred militants are holed up in the adjacent mountains.
Given the violence that has gripped Arsal, and the northern Bekaa more generally, for almost two years, such concerns are understandable.
But does the Nusra Front have an interest in deploying forces into southeast Lebanon, either to build a safe haven around Shebaa or to attack Druze villages further north?
Even if it did, can the group overcome the logistical hurdles of entering Lebanon across Mount Hermon and defending itself against the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah and possibly local defense paramilitary forces similar to those that have sprung up in some Christian villages near Arsal?
Over the summer, Syrian rebel groups, a mix of Free Syrian Army, nationalist Islamists and Nusra Front jihadis, advanced northward through the Golan Heights, seizing the area around Qunaitra at the end of August.
Rebels currently hold the ground extending to Jbata al-Khashab, 11 kilometers north of Qunaitra.
From there to the village of Bqassam east of Mount Hermon, the territory is contested between the Syrian army and the rebels with both holding some villages in that area.
Beit Jinn is thought to be the most northerly village presently under full control of the rebels, reportedly the Nusra Front.
The fighting last week between Druze fighters with the loyalist National Defense Force militia and the Nusra Front occurred around 5 kilometers north of Beit Jinn in the vicinity of Arneh.
According to Druze residents of the Rashaya area, the Syrian army informed the Druze NDF in Arneh that it planned to attack local Nusra Front forces.
But once the fighting began, the Syrian troops swiftly withdrew, leaving the Druze militiamen to face the militants. More than 20 Druze fighters were reported to have been killed in the clashes, a relatively high number for the small tight-knit community on the eastern slopes of Mount Hermon, an area that has seen little fighting since Syria’s civil war broke out three years ago.
Lebanese Druze opposed to the Assad regime believe that the incident was a cynical attempt by the Syrian authorities to foment hostilities between minority Druze and majority Sunnis in the Mount Hermon area to ensure the former continues to remain loyal to the regime.
The Druze in the Rashaya district say they wish to remain on good terms with their Sunni neighbors and have no intention of becoming embroiled in Syria’s conflict. But they say they will defend their villages if they come under attack.
Still, it is difficult to see what advantage the Nusra Front, or any other Syrian rebel faction, would have from crossing into Lebanon in the Mount Hermon area.
The Sunnis of Shebaa have stated quite clearly that they have no desire to see their town turned into another Arsal, despite their general sympathies for the Syrian opposition.
Unlike the terrain east of Arsal which is unpopulated and consists of hundreds of square kilometers of rugged mountains, the Shebaa-Rashaya area is relatively densely populated with few transport links, making it easier to control by the Army.
For example, the main road running south along a valley from Rashaya to Shebaa, a distance of 18 kilometers, has only two turnings to the west, one that leads to the village of Beit Lahia and the other to Ain Ata.
But the Beit Lahia road is blocked by the Army at the eastern approach to the village, which leaves only one passable opening to the west through an Army checkpoint at the Ain Ata-Shebaa-Rashaya intersection.
But a more formidable logistical difficulty for militants wanting to move into Lebanon is the absence of routes open to vehicles across Mount Hermon. There are tracks running west up the eastern sides of Mount Hermon from both Beit Jinn and Arneh.
But the tracks terminate at the crest of the Mount Hermon mountain chain and are used by peacekeepers from the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force to reach the position on the mountain’s summit.
The tracks do not descend into Lebanon from the top of Mount Hermon, meaning that anyone wishing to enter Lebanon here, whether militant or refugee, has to follow the old smuggling trails on foot or at best by donkey.
That effectively rules out the large-scale deployment of militants into Lebanon from Beit Jinn. By contrast, Syrian militants in Qalamoun, north of Damascus, had multiple unguarded and drivable tracks to move in and out of Lebanese territory near Arsal.
The first track crossing the border lies on the lower northern slopes of Mount Hermon 5 kilometers north of the Syrian village of Qalaat Jandal.
There are approximately nine more crossings, mainly rugged dirt tracks, before Deir al-Ashayer, but all of them lie in territory under Syrian army control. Some of the tracks are used exclusively by the Syrian army to reach their positions inside Lebanon in a valley south west of Deir al-Ashayer.
On the Lebanese side of the border, the Army secures the area through patrols and checkpoints and long ago blocked the tracks with earth berms to make them impassable to vehicles.
Even if there is a desire by the Nusra Front to deploy significant numbers of fighters into Lebanon – which is doubtful – the logistical difficulties involved given the current geographical disposition of forces on the Syrian side of the border suggest such a move would be futile