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MIDDLE EAST

Ancient Christian town in Lebanon perched at edge of deadly struggle

In Lebanon, an ancient Christian town near Syria is in the crosshairs of a deadly geopolitical struggle

From the summit of a hill named after St. Thomas the Apostle, Aqel Nasrallah peered into an impenetrable fog, scanning for potential infiltrators in the cottony horizon melding into the Syrian border.

"Our great fear is that they will sneak in at night and take the whole village hostage," said Nasrallah, a burly former Lebanese military officer turned volunteer guard. "They are not far away."

This ancient Christian hillside town of white-stone houses and stately churches is perched precariously, and strategically, in northeastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a sprawling area known for its agricultural abundance, plethora of Roman-era ruins and complex patchwork of religious faiths and political allegiances.

In the sleepy community, angels carved of stone stand vigil outside a convent where a road begins its winding ascent of the hill. A wooden cross marks the peak. In such troubled times, however, spiritual fortification is deemed insufficient.

The Syrian conflict, now in its fourth year, long ago spilled across the porous border separating Syria from Lebanon. Ras Baalbek's geography — the village is just a few miles from the international boundary — has placed it in the crosshairs of a ferocious and complicated geopolitical struggle with profound sectarian overtones.

Many here fear a lightning advance into Ras Baalbek by Sunni Muslim rebels who have been fighting for more than three years to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Residents are well versed on how Sunni Islamist rebels have defaced Christian churches and kidnapped clerics and nuns in Syria.

"Of course people are frightened," says Father Ibrahim Nemo, pastor of St. Elian's, a Greek Catholic church. "This is a strategic area for all sides."

To the east lies the rugged no man's land of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range — the barren realm of Syrian rebel fighters and sundry forces arrayed against them. To the south is Arsal, a Sunni Muslim quarry town in Lebanon transformed into a militant Syrian rebel stronghold. The road north leads to Hermel, bastion of Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim political and paramilitary organization that has dispatched militiamen to fight alongside Assad's forces in Syria.

This is one rough neighborhood.

Lebanon's professed neutrality in the war raging next door has failed to prevent gun battles, car bombings, kidnappings and other attacks linked to the fighting, in the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere. The Syrian civil war threatens a fragile political structure that has more or less kept the peace since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990.

Ras Baalbek has seen little trouble — a few stray mortar shells have struck, and several kidnappings have been reported. Mayor Hisham al-Haraj downplays what he regards as alarmist talk in a town known for a contentious mix of political views and allegiances.

"The security situation now is quite good," the mayor said in a telephone interview. "If anything happens in Ras Baalbek, all ideological differences will melt away and we will all be behind the Lebanese army."

But the thinly stretched Lebanese army has its hands full, its ranks reeling from militant predation. Early this month, militants ambushed an army patrol outside Ras Baalbek and killed six Lebanese soldiers.

Meantime, more than 20 Lebanese servicemen remain hostage after being seized in August; sundry Syrian rebel factions grabbed the soldiers and policemen during a militant thrust into Arsal that was ultimately beaten back. The militants, demanding the release of Sunni Islamist prisoners in Lebanon, have executed at least four of the Lebanese captives, stoking extreme tension.

The borderlands here host Syria's most radical and powerful Sunni rebel groups — Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction that the United States is bombing in both Syria and Iraq; and Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Fierce rivals elsewhere, the two factions exhibit some level of cooperation along the Lebanese frontier, an ominous development that has complicated the security panorama.

With such a volatile backdrop, some of the town's roughly 4,000 residents have left for Beirut or elsewhere. Others are preparing for the worst.

"People are bringing out their guns from the civil war days, oiling them, making sure they are in operating condition," says Hikmat Semaan, 69, a soft-spoken, retired school principal.

"There is a gun beneath the chair you are sitting in," he advises a visitor with a smile. "And a Kalashnikov in the kitchen. And another in the bedroom."

Also among the weapons refreshed for possible service, he says, is his late father's World War I-vintage Mauser rifle.

Here and in other Bekaa Valley towns, volunteer home-guard forces have been established, more like neighborhood watch groups than proper militias. Each night, men equipped with rifles and night-vision goggles stake out positions atop St. Thomas hill. Suspicious activity is reported to the Lebanese army.

Whether the patrols provide anything more than a psychological boost is difficult to say.

Some townsfolk also see a kind of shadow protector — the nearby presence of Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in Lebanon. Many are wary of the secretive, Shiite-led state within a state, but few doubt its capabilities. Hezbollah is the archfoe of the menacing Sunni militants.

"This area is important to Hezbollah, and they will defend it," notes Father Nemo. "Whether one wants it to be the case or not, the reality is that this region submits to Hezbollah's will."

Deemed a terrorist group by Washington, Hezbollah has tried to cultivate an image as a guardian of minorities, especially Christians, as it consolidates political power and battles Sunni rebels in Syria.

In a memorable video clip shown this year on the group's television station, a uniformed Hezbollah fighter stood in salute in front of a cross in the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula. That was after pro-Assad forces, including Hezbollah militiamen, drove Sunni militants from the town. A bright orange sunset formed the backdrop.

Some Sunnis in Arsal and elsewhere accuse the Lebanese army of being a tool of Hezbollah, a charge denied by the high command. But in Lebanon's splintered political and security landscape, some level of coordination between the army and Hezbollah is inevitable.

"We all support the army, we all support the army," said Semaan, the retired educator, seated in the parlor of his comfortable home here. "But the fact of the matter is that Hezbollah has never lost a fight. The army has."

Back on the fog-enveloped peak of St. Thomas, Aqel Nasrallah — an unabashed Hezbollah admirer — says the current struggle in Ras Baalbek is about survival, not sectarianism. "We are not against the Sunnis of Arsal, we are against anyone who comes here to destroy us," says the volunteer guardsman, gazing into the mist toward Syria. "We will battle against them to the death, fight with our heads held high."

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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