On Lebanon’s Independence Day, on November 22, preschoolers in Arsal’s oldest school started sketching the flags of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) in response to a classroom assignment to draw their country’s flag. Straddling Lebanon’s restive northeastern frontier with Syria, Arsal has long been known for its ambivalent standing between two states. In the latest of events against a backdrop of socioeconomic marginalization and unequal access to government services, the Syrian war has further challenged Arsal as a border town. At a time when Lebanon seeks to muster a common front against a perceived external security threat, the inability of the Lebanese state to figure out where Arsal stands has made public and state perceptions increasingly hostile toward the town. Framed as the epicenter of national tensions and violence, Arsal offers a frontline window into the geographical and ideological battle of the Syrian war and its impact on Lebanon. But the identities, realities, and aspirations of the town’s residents, both its Lebanese and Syrian constituents, are often overlooked in the process.
Arsal catapulted into the spotlight in August 2014 when it became the site of Lebanon’s first territorial encounter with militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. After a Syrian opposition commander was arrested at an Arsal checkpoint, rebels launched an attack on army posts in Arsal from the mountainous border zone they had been pushed back into after the regime’s takeover of Qalamoun. In scenes that were visually symbolic of an IS seizure of Lebanese land, fighters paraded through Arsal’s central streets atop newly captured Lebanese army tanks remodeled with fluttering IS flags. For nearly a week in early August, reinforcements from Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) battled with militants until Lebanon’s Sunni-backed Muslim Scholars Committee secured a ceasefire. Arsal emerged smoldering, irate, and under glaring public scrutiny. While a national outcry erupted regarding the 30 or more army officers and policemen the rebels took hostage as they retreated to the outskirts, local anger was directed at the excessive LAF shelling that had demolished residential homes and Syrian camps alike.
The high-profile events that bolstered the general unease about Islamist militancy in Lebanon—and continue to drag Lebanon into confessionally-mired negotiations over the remaining hostages—is at odds with Arsal’s geographic obscurity. Nestled deep inside the Anti-Lebanon mountain range and out of view from the region’s main roads, Arsal’s isolation has been central to the town’s fluctuating and rocky relationship with both Lebanon and Syria. “The state forgot us,” emphasize locals, referring to the lack of public services, schools, hospitals, and job opportunities ever since the end of the Lebanese civil war. Neglected by its own government, the town re-appropriated its national marginality into an extra-territorial relationship with Syria. While historically hostile to the Syrian regime and its occupation of Lebanon, residents have long been favorable to personal and strategic cross-border ties with Syrians. In the absence of a state, they have adapted the open border for their economic subsistence through trade and smuggling.
The outbreak of the war in Syria brought new strains on Arsal’s relationship with both countries. On the Lebanese side, surrounding Shia villages felt the predominately Sunni Arsal had a predisposition to harboring the more hardline rebel groups because of the town’s sympathies with its coreligionists in Syria and unpoliced proximity to the border. From Syria, 100,000 refugees fleeing the Battle of Qalamoun in November and December of 2013 tripled Arsal’s population in a matter of months. Residents emotionally evoke the memory of offering up their own homes for shelter to Syrian families pouring into the town in the height of winter. Gesturing westward, one newly arrived Syrian widow said, “Arsalis are good people, Sunnis, and like our brothers. We are comfortable here, unlike over there, in Lebanon,” making a clear distinction between Arsal and the rest of Lebanon. Cross-border ties did guarantee Syrians a refuge in Arsal, but like elsewhere in Lebanon, the massive influx eventually placed significant burdens on the host community. Such tensions can be glimpsed by the dwindling business of one local wedding singer: in comparison to the hundred performances he did in 2012, only ten gigs were secured this year due to competition from less expensive Syrian singers, and festive weddings are on the decline as sterner religious opinions carry more influence.
More than anywhere else in Lebanon, Arsal best captures the state’s dysfunctional attempts to contain both violence and the refugee crisis from Syria. Lebanon, which Prime Minister Tammam Salam said is confronting a dangerous period in its history, has put a renewed focus on military solutions, including foreign-sponsored border watchtowers and a multi-billion-dollar arms sale. Arsal became the focal point for new security measures that left its population describing a siege-like condition. The border, the town’s lifeline, has been closed, surveillance outposts have mushroomed on the hilltops, and seventeen checkpoints now control access to the outskirts of Arsal, where the majority of rock quarries and agricultural fields are (two principal livelihoods).
In addition, the new steps, aimed at regulating suspect Syrian movements, have affected the refugee population already undergoing a humanitarian crisis. About two thousand Syrian families are trapped beyond Arsal’s checkpoints without supplies and medical services, while refugees inside the town’s encampments are unable to travel further into Lebanon without risking arbitrary detention at the main army checkpoint. As winter sets in, the ongoing barricade has pushed the local relief workers still operating in Arsal to call continuously for the return of the UNHCR, which had halted operations during the August violence due to general insecurity.
Lebanese residents of Arsal are also exasperated by policing practices that do not differentiate between them and Syrians. The LAF allows no more than two bags of bread per vehicle into the outskirts, and one quarry worker related that soldiers, aiming to prevent provisions from reaching Syrian rebels, had made him transport 200 barrels of oil in 20-liter containers at a time. Ever since the LAF crushed their 1958 uprising against President Chamoun, residents have had little faith in an army that they see exerting a heavy hand over their community. Moreover, the military’s growing cooperation with Hezbollah against rebel groups from Syria—along with its tolerance of Shia villagers blocking access into and out of the village—fuels Sunni grievances and distrust.
The schoolchildren’s confusion over the national flag highlights Arsal’s placement at the intersection of an expanding medley of local and transnational forces. It also demonstrates the distance the state had shortsightedly put between it and its border towns. Yet this is more indicative of Arsal residents’ uncertainty regarding the state’s recognition of them than of actual ideological affiliations, and points to the need to deal with underlying causes of exclusion and resentment.
“Arsal has become one big prison. Beseiged by armed groups from the east, Shia villages supported by Hezbollah on the other side, and the Lebanese army sealing off routes,” says Sheikh Samih Azzedine, an Arsal native and a member of the Muslim Scholars team overseeing the hostage mediations. “A military solution to Arsal’s predicament is not the answer,” he adds. The endless crevices and secluding hills of Arsal harbor a population accustomed to autonomy, but locals are keen to belong to a strong Lebanon that looks after them in a positive manner as full citizens, and not just as a security concern. The current hostage crisis brings to the forefront what residents really want and what should have been guaranteed long ago: safety for the refugees, complete state services, a secure road to Beirut unobstructed by nearby Shia villages, and, of course, putting Arsal back on the Lebanese map.
Maya Hautefeuille is a Beirut-based documentary photographer covering social and humanitarian issues in the region. She focuses on building visual storytelling skills in marginalized communities through participatory photography.