Lebanon simmers by Syria's side: Terror attacks drag Lebanese communities into civil war next door

Suicide bombers target Hezbollah strongholds across the porous border

The arched façade of the shopping centre is still blackened with soot and piles of debris, and building material marks the spot where a suicide bomber detonated his belt, and his car, two weeks ago.

The explosion killed five people; among the 40 more wounded was Ali Shaheen, a pharmacist, who was making coffee at the time of the blast. "Everything collapsed around us," he recalls. The attack has made residents of Hermel, a "100 per cent Shia" town where Hezbollah reigns supreme, resigned and fearful of a new threat that seems impossible to stop. "When it comes to suicide bombers, neither Hezbollah nor the Lebanese army can prevent such an act," said Shaheen, a father of three.

Although this is its first suicide bombing, it is not the first time the town has felt the consequences of Hezbollah's role in the Syrian war. Over 150 rockets have rained down on Hermal and its surroundings over the past two years. Last night, a second suicide bombing hit the town, killing three.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, formally announced that the group was fighting alongside the Syrian army last May, when his forces played a crucial role in expelling rebels from Qusayr, just across the Lebanese border. Since then, five suicide bombings have hit Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs.

The war in Syria is spilling dangerously over the border The war in Syria is spilling dangerously over the border Several of the attacks, including Hermel's suicide bomb, have been claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al Qa'ida that began operating in Lebanon towards the end of last year. Last Sunday, the group released a statement on Twitter telling fellow Sunni's to stay out of Hezbollah areas. "Iran's party [Hezbollah] and all its bases and bastions are legitimate targets for us, wherever they are," the group said.

Hezbollah has always argued that it entered Syria to prevent Islamist elements from reaching Lebanon. But far from being a deterrent, the increased violence has made Hermel residents happy that Hezbollah has entered the fray. Doctor Hussein, a local anaesthetist who treated a number of victims of the Hermel blast, was initially against Hezbollah's involvement in Syria. But he has since reconsidered. "Imagine what would happen here if Hezbollah didn't enter the conflict," he said.

Residents and officials in Hermel are clear about who is responsible for the violence: a combination of takfiri (apostates), jihadi's and islamists. And, they say, the residents of Arsal, a Sunni town 30 minutes down the road, are harbouring them.

The two villages are a microcosm of the Syrian conflict on Lebanese soil. Hermel is important as a logistical hub for Hezbollah and an easy access point for its fighters across the border. The town is known as the "capital of the resistance".

Arsal fulfils a similar role for the Syrian rebels. It provides a vital supply route for those still fighting in Qalamoun, just across the border, and around Damascus.

Syrian Fallout: The Lebanese army can’t prevent the influx of refugees Syrian Fallout: The Lebanese army can’t prevent the influx of refugees Family ties here stretch across the porous border and, from the start of the conflict, Arsal's Sunni residents have been sympathetic to the Syrian rebel cause. The town has welcomed thousands of refugees, its population of 40,000 swelled by 60,000 Syrians. Informal tented camps dot the town's outskirts, and every unfinished building now houses more than one family. Hidden among women and children are the thousands of rebel fighters who come to recuperate.

The town's strategic position allows them to do so. It lies at the end of an unpaved, rocky road that winds up into the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. The route, leading first to limestone quarries, continues into Syria and facilitates the heart of Arsal's economy: the smuggling of fighters, ammunition and weapons.

Syria's air force has noticed, regularly bombing the surrounding area, while Arsal itself has suffered a barrage of rocket attacks over the past two years. Following the suicide bombing in Hermel, just such a rocket attack left seven people dead in Arsal, among them five children.

The residents blame Hezbollah for attacks like these. Arsal is surrounded by Shia towns, and many fear to leave the safety of their Sunni enclave. "They are terrorists," says Abed Hasan Hmeil, 24, a quarry worker, who is certain that making a visit to Hermel would end in arrest or death.

Recently the town has been squeezed by the Lebanese military stepping up its operations. On Friday, the Lebanese army stopped a large shipment of ammunition and made several high-profile arrests. Tensions between Arsal and its Shia neighbours are set to escalate when the rebels' strategic position in central Syria, Yabroud, comes under attack. A Hezbollah official said that battle would start "within days".

Clearing Yabroud has become "a top priority" for Hezbollah, as many of the attacks targeting the group in Lebanon have originated there. "The rebels are accelerating the ending of the Qalamoun battle," the Hezbollah official said while sipping coffee in his office. He said it was unclear whether Hezbollah would allow fighters to leave the battlefield once the fight starts. After the third week of fighting, a humanitarian corridor was opened, allowing many fighters to escape. The official admitted that had been "a mistake".

The loss of Yabroud would be "a disaster for Lebanon and Syria", said Alain as he sat in a makeshift clinic in Arsal. The young man was wounded while fighting with "an Islamist group" in Yabroud five months ago. He is an English language graduate, with a professed love of George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, and who now has a metal pin sticking out of his lower leg.

If defeated – and allowed to leave – the sole place to retreat to, he thinks, will be Arsal. "The only way is here," he said in the improvised clinic. "The regime has surrounded the area," he added, before repeating: "The only place is here."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Performance Consultant Trainee

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Consultant trainee opportunit...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - (Full marketing mix) - Knutsford

£22000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Knu...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Day In a Page

Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

The US is getting frayed at the edges

Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

Celebrating 100 years of Leica

A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world