Policy Analysis 22 March, 2015

Hamzeh Almoustafa

Hamzeh Almoustafa is a research assistant at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. His primary research concerns internal relations, with a special focus on Syria.Turkey and their geo-political significance. Prior to joining the Center, al-Moustafa worked as an executive researcher at the Orient Center for International Studies, and focused on Israeli affairs. He holds a BA in Political Science from Damascus University, and is currently preparing for an MA in International Relations. Additionally, he holds a Certificate in International Relations from the Global Policy Center at the Free University of Berlin.


Clashes broke out in a small Lebanese border town in the north of the Bekaa Valley, not far from the Syrian border on August 2, 2014. The town, an isolated and under-developed yet historically powerful location, had become the focus of competing and opposed interests in the Syrian crisis and fragile Lebanese politics. What has become known as the Battle of Arsal saw the Lebanese Army face off with Syrian rebel groups including jihadist organizations ISIS, and the Jabhat al-Nusra. After five days of fighting an agreement was reached, overseen by Lebanon’s (Sunni) Authority of Islamic Scholars alongside the Life Foundation for Democracy and Human Rights, saw the Syrian fighters withdraw. This paper examines the battle of Arsal, asks how the withdrawal was secured, looks forward at what long-term solution might be found, and in particular questions how the events of the battle’s fall-out may help to illustrate the current quagmire of Lebanon-Syria politics. It lays out the background to the eruption of hostilities, examines the needs and motives of the actors involved, and attempts to lay out an authoritative account of what happened in the border town, with an eye to disentangling the interests that maintain the current volatile situation.

The Specificity of Arsal

The town of Arsal lies along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, in sits in what is commonly referred to as the anti-Lebanon mountain range, overlooking the Bekaa Valley. Its municipal boundaries run some 50 kilometers along the Syrian border fence, it is accessible only via a 10km road that winds toward the town stemming off the main artery linking Baalbek, Labwa and Hermel, and its steep surrounding mountains mean Arsal is largely isolated from other nearby Lebanese towns. The town is not only remote from other towns and villages, but it is also a long way from Lebanon’s hubs; it is 38 kilometers from Baalbek, 75km from the Bekaa provincial district of Zahle, and a full 120km away from the capital Beirut.[1] Despite its remote location, the town is significant within the country; covering 316.9 km2 it accounts for nearly 5% of Lebanon’s landmass.[2] In a region characterized by a harsh and arid climate, its estimated 40,000 inhabitants rely primarily on stone quarrying, agriculture, and commercial industries like carpet making, but only 10% of the population is involved in regular employment in the public or private sector.[3] Beyond its fame as the home of the carpet trade, Arsal is also known as the home-town to many of the members of the Lebanese security and military forces.

Like other towns in the Baalbek region, Arsal is economically and socially marginalized. Beyond its low employment rate, the signs of this depravation can be seen in the poor state of the town’s health and educational facilities, as well as in its slow pace of development. Its isolation, harsh climate, poorly developed industry, and proximity to the Syrian border have exacerbated the depravation faced by the town, and lead to the development of a smuggling industry. Before 2010, when fuel subsidies were lifted in Syria, the town gained particular renown for the smuggling of heating oil. With a consistent demand for cooking oil, and a high margin of profit given the subsidies in Syria, the smuggling industry was highly profitable.[4] The smuggling industry created networks between Arsal and Syrian towns like Qalamoun; networks that changed the character of the majority Sunni town in the largely Shi’ite Bekaa. With increased intermarriage and the growth of family networks between the two sides of the frontier, Arsal’s character quickly changed to become a Syrian town on the Lebanese side of the border.

The contemporary character of the town as a location of independence with a culture of resistance is reinforced by the town’s historical resistance to the Ottoman Turkish occupation near the fall of the Ottoman Empire; records indicate that 40 residents from Arsal’s al-Bustan neighborhood were hanged by the Ottomans, while others were executed in Baalbek and Damascus.[5] This independent streak was also manifest in the town’s reluctance to be included in the “Grand Liban” project, the Lebanese Republic-to-be, instead, residents demanded to be included as a part of Syria. The folk tradition of Arsal tells of how residents took part in the Syrian Revolution of 1925, especially in the battle at Jiwar al-Naqqar, at which 13 French soldiers were killed.[6] Later on, during the tumultuous events of 1958 in Lebanon, the townspeople of Arsal would raise the Syrian flag over the police station and public school, as a way to challenge the two sites of state power present in the town.[7]

To continue reading this Analysis as a PDF, please click here. This Analysis was translated into English by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on September 3, 2014, please click here
This article is the first of a two-part series on extremist Sunni groups in Lebanon. The second part will be published on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

[1] “Arsal: A Lebanese Town in Support of the Syrian Revolution,” Al-Jazeera Net, January 17, 2014, http://goo.gl/lwCtL0

[2] “Arsal, The [Canaanite] God El’s Throne Embodied in Flesh and Stone.” Army Magazine No. 276, June, 2008, http://www.lebarmy.gov.lb/ar/news/?18473#.U_NK-vmSy-0

[3] “Arsal: A Lebanese Town,” Op. cit.

[4] Hussain Sultan, “Smuggling Between Arsal and Syria.. Returning the Favor,” al-Modon, July 31, 2014, http://www.almodon.com/economy/e128a4c5-01a6-40fe-bc35-9ff47aa2125e

[5] “Arsal, The [Canaanite] God El’s Throne,” Op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Saoud al-Mawla, Lebanese Shiites in the Crystallization of the National Consciousness, Dar al-Jadid, Beirut, 2007, p. 37.