ARSAL, Lebanon — When Mustafa Ezzedine, a Sunni Muslim from this Sunni border town, wanted to buy some furniture, he undertook a clandestine trip into war-torn Syria rather than face harassment, or worse, from Shiite Muslim security officers or townsmen in nearby Lebanese communities.
“Although geographically we are in Lebanon, spiritually we are with Syria,” said Ezzedine, 66, who was recently freed after being held hostage along with 10 other Sunnis in reprisal for the kidnapping of a Shiite in Arsal.
Ezzedine’s sentiments are common along the Syrian-Lebanese border, where the sectarian-tinged civil war in Syria has exacerbated tension in an already volatile region.
Kidnapping, smuggling and tribal feuds have long been a reality of the Lebanese landscape, but the conflict next door between the longtime Shiite-linked government of President Bashar Assad and fragmented, largely Sunni, opposition forces has seriously upped the ante here.
These days, nothing seems to transpire in northern Lebanon without the Syrian conflict coloring the exchange.
Shiite villagers, backed by members of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, cross the frontier unimpeded to defend their outnumbered kinsmen in Syria. Fighters of the Free Syrian Army or Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front meld into Sunni-dominated Lebanese towns alongside refugees from the violence just miles away.
Over the weekend, Assad, meeting with a delegation of Lebanese politicians, demanded to know why the once-compliant neighbor maintains a formal pose of neutrality. On the other hand, Sunni rebels from the Syrian region of Qusair issued a statement threatening to bring the conflict to the border, accusing Hezbollah of providing military assistance to the Syrian government.
In Arsal, half-finished cinder-block homes overlooking stony mountain basins are now filled with refugee families. Many of them are wives and children deposited here by Syrian rebel fighters while they wage war back home.
On a recent day, a newly arrived Sunni fighter, a farmer before the war, sat nursing a shrapnel wound to his leg, his wife beside him, nursing their infant daughter. The fighter described Lebanon’s Hezbollah as one of his chief enemies, accusing the militant group of bolstering the Syrian military campaign, thus forcing his family to seek refuge here.
In the chaos, local Lebanese smugglers and criminals forge ties, if not partnerships, with the armed groups across the border.
Whether the current events are a preamble to the war dragging full scale into Lebanon, or instead represent inevitable turbulence caused by the nearby fighting, there is little question that the border region has become a more dangerous place than at any time in recent memory.
Ezzedine’s experiences are a case in point.
In late March, Hussein Jaffar, a Shiite from the neighboring Hezbollah-dominated Hermel region, was kidnapped and taken to a rebel-held area of Syria. In retaliation, Jaffar’s tribe kidnapped Sunnis from Arsal, including Ezzedine.
To rescue his residents, the Sunni mayor of Arsal had to raise $100,000 in ransom money to free the Shiite, Jaffar, from kidnappers who were almost surely fellow Sunnis. The complicated exchange, in which men counted out and bundled hundred-dollar bills with rubber bands in the mayor’s office, involved Syrian rebels, criminal gangs and Jaffar’s powerful tribe.
Afterward, Jaffar’s cousin, Raed, said the kidnappers were Sunni fighters who had been eager to make money, whether for their movement or personal profit nobody knew.
“Every day it is getting worse. The whole area is becoming worse,” Raed Jaffar said. “A Syrian guy comes in and wants to have revenge for his brother or relative, he comes here and does it to the villages here.”
Syria’s pro- and anti-government factions clearly see Lebanon as a crucial pawn in their battles.
“After the entry of elements of Hezbollah to the villages of Al-Qusair … we have decided to take the blood battle to the heart of Lebanon,” Sunni rebels said Sunday. They announced that “elements of the [Free Syrian Army] will be mobilized inside Lebanon to begin unique military operations” and warned Lebanese to stay away from places controlled by Hezbollah.
Both the Syrian government and rebels have shelled Lebanese towns in the course of their war. Residents of nearby Wadi Khaled, a lush Sunni farming community on the border north of Tripoli, say sniper fire and shelling occur nightly.
Across the valley is a pro-Assad community that has allegedly lined former smuggling routes with land mines to prevent Wadi Khaled from being turned into a rebel stronghold. The community has also witnessed at least one tit-for-tat kidnapping case similar to the one in Arsal.
Ahmed Ali, Wadi Khaled’s deputy mayor, worries that the abductions, sniper fire and shelling are only a prelude to an escalating deterioration in security if the Syrian government falls.
“There will be a settling of accounts and revenge killings,” Ali said, dubbing Wadi Khaled a battlefield. “These villages are considered pro-revolution. So some reprisals will happen over here.”
Arsal, with its proximity to rebel territory in Syria, has become a refuge and source of arms for Syrian rebels. It is an unspoken fact that some of Arsal’s residents have joined the cause.
Former kidnapping victim Ezzedine, for one, said that once the rebel cause proves victorious, the border should be redrawn.
“I would like us to be part of Syria on the ground,” he said, as he and neighbors passed cigarettes packed with tobacco and hashish in his stone guest hut. “This revolution is our revolution. We shouldn’t hide it.”
Although some of his neighbors were more circumspect because of fear of the Lebanese security forces, such sentiment is common in Arsal, where the borders, drawn up in the mid-20th century with the demise of formal colonial rule, have always been artificial and have mattered less than cultural, tribal and commercial bonds.
Many, though, are fearful of the consequences of chaos. Those in nearby Shiite villages also fret about events spinning out of control.
“Everyone will be standing with a different side, and they will be affected,” said Talaal Iskander, a resident of the pro-Hezbollah community of Al Qasr. “The situation here is tribal and with the family…. We rely on this and on the reasonable people to hold things together.”