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Sunday, 5 July 2015

Fears of Islamic State Syria war persist in Lebanese border village

A Lebanon Hezbollah fighter carries his weapon as he stands in Khashaat, in the Qalamoun region after they advanced in the area May 15, 2015.
The barren mountains separating the Lebanese village of Qaa from Syria have helped shield it from the war raging next door, yet fears of missile attacks, abductions and incursions have persisted since the conflict erupted more than four years ago.

In recent weeks, residents of this Christian village say life has started to feel a little more normal, thanks to an offensive waged by Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah against the insurgents just over the border in Syria.

The Hezbollah operation targeting Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front has helped halt the short-range rockets fired periodically at border villages in Lebanon, repeatedly jolted by spillover from the war in Syria.

Yet even with the powerful, Iranian-backed Hezbollah battling the insurgents in the border zone, and the Lebanese army deploying to secure the frontier, the villagers of Qaa are still worried. They say they are ready to fight if necessary.

"There is concern about security here because of the dangers we are seeing around us," said Milad Bitar, a father of three, describing how he watched with concern as jihadists rose to the forefront of the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The fate of Christians in Iraq and Syria, persecuted by Islamic State, is ever present in his mind. Earlier in the Syrian conflict, several villagers from Qaa were kidnapped and held for ransom.

"Our borders are very close ... they are only two kilometers from here," said Bitar, who owns a petrol station.

Like many in Qaa, he has his own gun, bought three years ago, and says he is ready to use it if necessary.

"We need to defend our families".

JOINT OFFENSIVE

Hezbollah, a vital ally to Assad, launched its assault against insurgents in the Qalamoun mountain range in May, in a joint offensive with the Syrian army.

Its involvement is critical to securing western areas of Syria where Assad is trying to shore up his grip as Syrian rebels gain ground elsewhere. On Sunday, the Syrian army and Hezbollah said they had entered the city of Zabadani, which the rebels have held since 2012.

But the Qalamoun offensive also has an important security dimension for Hezbollah in Lebanon, removing the threat posed by the insurgents to areas of political and military importance in the Bekaa Valley.

Hezbollah's role in Syria is highly controversial in Lebanon, where loyalties are split between people who support Assad and others who sympathize with the Sunni rebels trying to unseat him. Its critics say Hezbollah's role in Syria has in fact increased the danger posed by Sunni jihadists to Lebanon.

But those arguments do not appear to carry weight with residents of Qaa and border Shi'ite villages, who share Hezbollah's concerns about Islamic State and al Qaeda.

"Time has proved to us that we as Christians are in danger," said Mansour Saad, a local official.

The several thousand villagers have decided to fight the insurgents themselves if necessary.

"Here, before we name our babies, we buy them a gun," said Saad, a supporter of Christian politician and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun. "We have put in place several plans on how to act if we get attacked."

STRATEGIC ZONE

Areas of Syria across the border from Qaa are of vital importance in the war, which has killed nearly a quarter of a million people and shows no signs of abating.
The Syrian city of Homs lies just 50 km (30 miles) to the northeast. The town of Qusair, where Hezbollah intervened to crush Syrian rebels in 2013, is directly over the border. Without control of the Homs region, Assad cannot secure the corridor of territory stretching north from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.

The price Hezbollah is paying for its involvement in the Syrian war is displayed throughout Shi'ite villages in the area. Pictures of young men killed in the fighting hang alongside portraits of the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and banners vowing to end "terrorism" at the border.

In a Sunni village in the area, Lebanese who are sympathetic to the Syrian insurgency and share the view that Hezbollah has brought trouble to their country can be found, but they appear hesitant to speak out.

"Who drove the Syrians out and who destroyed their homes?" said one, voicing sympathy for Syrian refugees who have flooded Lebanon. Declining to give his name, he said others felt the same but were scared to speak.

The outskirts of Qaa serve as a temporary home to thousands of Syrian refugees, some of the more than 1 million who have fled to Lebanon. But there is little sympathy for them in Qaa, where they are seen as a threat.

"We consider them as 'sleeper cells' because they are here in big numbers. We do not know when they might carry weapons and take part in an attack against us," said Saad, the local official.

A little further to the south, thousands more refugees still reside in the Sunni town of Arsal, scene of several days of lethal clashes between the Lebanese army and jihadist groups who launched an attack on the town last August.

In the nearby Shi'ite village of Labweh, residents recall coming under rocket fire from Arsal during the attack.

"We had to carry weapons then," said Mohamad Sharif, a father of three. "I picked up guns not for Hezbollah or anyone else, but for my children," he said.

Many critics of Hezbollah in the Shi'ite and Christian border villages have set aside their differences with the group. They see the jihadists as an existential threat due to their proximity to the border.

"I disagree with Hezbollah on several issues but in this battle I am on its side ... If it weren't for Hezbollah, there would have been massacres here," Sharif said.

"Let Hezbollah say they need fighters and you will see thousands joining from this region, but they do not need fighters," he said, speaking at his house near Arsal.

"The families here are willing to sacrifice a son, two or even three in this battle, this is an existential war for us here. If we have to lose 100 men, let it be, as long as we get rid of them," he said.

Mustafa, a university student from Labweh, said there was unanimous support for Hezbollah's role fighting at the border. "People may question what Hezbollah is doing in Idlib or Aleppo, but you won't find anyone here who would ask why Hezbollah is fighting on the border now," he said.

(Editing by Tom Perry and Mark Trevelyan)

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