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Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
People gather amid damage and the remains of tents for Syrian refugees that were burnt in the fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa, 9 August 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Shalha

Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town

The fate of the border town Arsal mirrors Lebanon’s many policy failures. The government applies heavy-handed security at the expense of basic services and fair economic opportunities. It should change its policies to become more flexible, accountable and supportive of Syrian refugees – and receive more international help in return.

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I. Overview

Weakened by deepening inter- and intra-communal rifts, the Lebanese state has gradually abandoned its primary role in governance and as manager of representative politics and relies increasingly on security measures to maintain stability and the political status quo. The remote border town of Arsal in the north east is emblematic of this security-centric method of tackling unrest. The approach, which escalated after the Syrian war began next door, is short-sighted and dangerous, as it fights symptoms while inadvertently reinforcing underlying factors that drive instability. If the government were to address Arsal’s plight in a more balanced manner that takes those factors into account by folding its security component into an overall political strategy, it could yet turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one, preventing the town’s downward spiral and providing a model for tackling such problems in the country overall.

Arsal combines many of Lebanon’s woes: economic erosion and poor governance at its fringes; sectarian fault lines shaping the fate of a Sunni enclave within a majority-Shiite governorate (Baalbek-Hermel) in the Beqaa Valley; the weakening of Sunni national leadership and growing assertiveness of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement whose militia is actively fighting in Syria; and the spillover of the Syrian conflict. The latter has turned the town into a rear base for anti-regime fighters, a trans-shipment point for explosive devices, and – for both these reasons – a threat for Hizbollah and Lebanon’s security apparatus. It has also turned the town into an initial haven for waves of refugees, adding to severe pressures on both the Lebanese state and individual localities throughout Lebanon.

A five-day battle between Syrian jihadis and the Lebanese army in August 2014 put Arsal on the map as a national threat in the minds of many Lebanese. The army then cordoned off the town, its checkpoints making it extremely difficult for ordinary Arsalis to travel, outsiders to visit, aid to reach tens of thousands of refugees hunkered down in the area and even local peasants to access their lands. The economy collapsed, while Syrian armed groups stayed put, seemingly enjoying a modus vivendi with the army provided they kept a low profile. In this festering stalemate of social disruption and popular resentment, radical Syrian groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra benefit the most, as they can mobilise local anger and harness it to their worldview.

Violence in and around Arsal has decreased as a result of the army’s cordon but not ended. Lebanon’s military response might be understandable. The country’s brittle stability does not leave room for much leniency or political risk taking, especially in today’s highly dangerous regional environment. The state’s dysfunction gives carte blanche to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by default, because it is one of the country’s rare functioning institutions. Moreover, the massive refugee influx, amounting to more than one quarter of Lebanon’s population, has aggravated pre-existing problems and strained already scarce resources, making it very difficult for even an effective government to cope with socio-economic needs.

Nevertheless, the state’s heavy reliance on security to solve all manner of political and social ills offers no durable solution. If anything can explain more specifically how the situation in Arsal spun out of control, it is a long track record of central authority neglect; and if there is anything its inhabitants truly want, it is a greater presence of the state’s non-security parts: improved basic services, economic opportunities, better political representation, a solution to, or at least mitigation of, the refugee crisis and effective policing instead of collective punishment.

Beyond the Arsal case, which is troubling in its own right, lies the bigger story of the state’s gradual abdication of its duties. As its performance on governance and representative politics grows more dismal by the day, it increasingly falls back on security measures devoid of any serious political, humanitarian or developmental component. This approach has proven dangerously seductive, by maintaining an appearance of stability while catalysing the state’s further decay in a self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse. Over the years, such behaviour has become a pattern in Lebanon; beyond its borders, the same logic has been taken even further in Iraq, the progressive disintegration of whose state should be a cautionary lesson. Rather than suppressing the symptoms wherever instability metastasises, Lebanese authorities should be treating the causes.

Arsal would be a good place to start. To arrest the downward spiral, the authorities should reduce army security measures in and around it in ways that would still be security-effective. For instance, nothing prevents them from either abolishing the permit required for outsiders to visit, or granting it by default, except when there is clear evidence of ill-intent. Allegations of human rights abuse by security officers should be promptly and vigorously investigated and proven offences punished. Procedures are needed that would enable local farmers to cultivate their land. Authorities should facilitate adequate humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and relieve Arsal by relocating some of them to other areas in Lebanon, an idea discussed by the government but not acted upon.

If this comprehensive approach can succeed in Arsal, perhaps the government and donors could then apply the lessons to the country’s other multiplying trouble spots. In that case, donor countries would have to significantly increase their support to Lebanon to help it address the refugee crisis and its impact on host communities. The Lebanese government would then need in turn to allocate adequate funds to other areas like Arsal that are hosting high numbers of refugees, with the aim to set up viable and sustainable economic and infrastructure projects.

Beirut/Brussels, 23 February 2016

The Fragility of Northern Syria

A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
     
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
     
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
     
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.