Mitchell Prothero writes: The blacked-out sport utility vehicles entered the small mountain village of Arsal, in the furthest reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, at midnight on a cold night late last month. The mostly Sunni residents of the town immediately knew what was happening: Hezbollah had come to grab someone from his bed.
The target appears to have been a Syrian relative of the dominant local tribe, the Qarqouz, who had taken refuge in the village, which lies just a few miles from the Syrian border. With close families ties on both sides of the line, as well as a central government presence that doesn’t even live up to the designation of “weak,” the tribes make little distinction between Syria and Lebanon, and many make their livings plying that most cliché of all Beqaa trades: cross-border smuggling.
Whether the wanted man is a dissident Syrian remains unclear — the family certainly denies any such thing. Nevertheless, the raid by Hezbollah’s internal security apparatus follows a pattern of harassment, kidnapping, and cross-border rendition of Syrian anti-regime activists by Syria’s many loyalists in Lebanon, which also include rogue police units, pro-Syria political movements, and even Kurdish separatists. As President Bashar al-Assad looks to squelch an astonishingly persistent nine-month revolt, Lebanon is fast becoming another battleground between supporters and opponents of his rule.
The Arsal incursion, however, did not go how Hezbollah planned. The men in black trucks didn’t impress the residents of Arsal: True to their reputation as a flinty bunch, the tribes immediately sent out men bedecked with the ubiquitous accessories of any respectable Beqaa smuggler — the AK-47 and rocket propelled grenade launcher — and ambushed the convoy before it could lay hands on the purported Syrian fugitive.
Local officials released a statement shortly afterwards, warning Hezbollah against any attempt to repeat its adventure. “Let everyone know that Arsal is not orphaned,” it read. “[A]nyone attacking Arsal or any other Lebanese town would be definitely serving the Zionist enemy and Assad’s brigades.”
Hezbollah, which tepidly denied the incident, hasn’t released any casualty figures, but the ensuing firefight was nasty enough that the Lebanese Army dispatched a team to extract the Hezbollah men from the ambush — and itself came under fire from Sunni mountainfolk with little use for either Shiite militant supporters of the Assad regime, or law enforcement of any sort.
The Lebanese army claimed in a convoluted statement the next day that an intelligence unit was in hot pursuit of a known criminal when it unexpectedly came under attack. However, that narrative unraveled over the next few days, when a collection of local officials and anti-Syrian Sunni politicians accused Hezbollah of instigating the attack — a claim confirmed to FP by multiple intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as one prominent human rights activist.