The Battle For Arsal

Daniel Nisman

Immediately after another deadly suicide bombing ripped through central Damascus on Friday, the Assad Regime, the Syrian opposition, and their allies abroad unloaded accusations as to the identity of the perpetrators. While opposition's assertion of a regime-orchestrated conspiracy has fallen on deaf ears around the world, this latest bombing certainly bolsters Assad's claim that radical Al Qaeda-linked militants have joined the ranks of collective struggle to topple him. Regardless of the actual perpetrators, both Assad and the opposition understand that perceptions of Syria descending into sectarian chaos only further cement the international community's hesitation to expedite his ousting. At the base of Assad's claims lies the town of Arsal, a sleepy village in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, whose unsuspecting citizens have become embroiled in a heated debate which may just decide the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
Arsal was catapulted into the global spotlight immediately after twin car bombings struck Damascus on December 23, 2011. After the attacks, Syrian officials based their claims of Al Qaeda involvement on statements made days prior by Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, who stated that Jihadists were infiltrating into Syria through illegal border crossings. Ghosn claimed that Arsal, a Sunni village of 40,000 people located 35 kilometers from the Syrian border, had become a hotbed for these activities. The statements sparked outrage amongst Arsal's residents, who claimed that there was little evidence to suggest that the town was harboring Al Qaeda extremists. While village elders admitted that some local mosques were known as bastions of fundamentalism, they enjoyed little influence over the town's residents. In the days that followed, Arsal became the focal point of a heated debate in Lebanon over the existence of Al Qaeda extremists in the country.
In the broader context, Arsal's plight has come to highlight the fact that Lebanon is becoming increasingly entangled in the conflict in neighboring Syria. Arsal, like many other villages which dot the northeast border, has become a safe haven for Syrian dissidents fleeing Assad's crackdown in nearby flashpoint cities like Homs and Hama. The mostly Sunni residents of these villages strongly sympathize with their counterparts in Syria, connecting their struggle against Assad's Alawite regime with their own ethnic tensions vis-à-vis Lebanon's powerful Shia parties. This assistance has prompted the Syrian military to penetrate into Lebanon on multiple junctures, killing residents and capturing dissidents who recently fled. In addition, many villagers charge that plainclothed men (likely Hezbollah operatives) have kidnapped Syrian activists and taken them across the border into the regime's custody.
Lebanon's March 14 opposition, which represents the country's anti-Assad Sunnis and Christians, has insisted that Ghosn's accusations against Arsal exemplify the reality that the cabinet is now acting on behalf of the Syrian regime. Indeed, the accusations have been construed as an insult to a nation which has struggled to re-brand itself as a civil and sovereign nation after years of civil war and foreign occupation. Even Prime Minister Miqati, who's party allied itself with Hezbollah to form the ruling coalition has distanced himself from Ghosn's charges, albeit has failed to take a firm stance in opposition.
Back in Damascus, the Assad regime has continued to exploit the latest suicide attack by alluding to its long-standing accusation that the Syrian opposition has been infiltrated by extremist elements. As such, the regime will likely turn once more to its allies in the Lebanese government to sell its version of the story, urging them to officially concede that Al Qaeda militants have indeed infiltrated from their territory into Syria.
Should the Lebanese government adopt this position, it would constitute a serious blow to the image of the Syrian opposition, as a (seemingly) sovereign entity would confirm to the world that fears regarding sectarian consequences of a post-Assad Syria are indeed justified. Assad's camp knows all too well that the mere thought of a destabilized Syria on the doorstep of a recovering Iraq is more than enough to deter the international community from taking any actions against him, no matter how heinous his crackdown has become.
The March 14 opposition has already warned that such an announcement rivals would only serve to drag Lebanon even further into the Syrian conflict by implicating its already enraged Sunni populace with involvement with extremist activity. Meanwhile, the residents of Arsal are likely watching developments in both Damascus and Beirut with utmost concern, plotting their response to a possible renewed onslaught of accusations regarding their alleged extremist ties. Little do they know that upholding the image of their once-sleepy hamlet may prove to be a critical factor in ousting one of the region's most wicked dictatorships. Daniel Nisman is an Argov Fellow for Leadership and Diplomacy at the IDC Herzlyia. He works for Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.