Lebanon’s hashish valley drawn into Syrian war

Lebanon’s hashish heartland of the Bekaa Valleyhit by rocket-fire from Syria on June 1, has become increasingly embroiled in the civil war raging across the border. The fertile valley, which was occupied by Syria from 1976 to 2005, is a patchwork of Sunni and Shi’ite areas, and during Lebanon’s civil war in 1980s the hashish and opium trade there funded sectarian militias. There are now ominous signs of a return to this deadly rivalry. In late March, gunmen from the Sunni town of Arsal—a conduit for arms and fighters for the Syrian rebels—kidnapped a member of the powerful Shi’ite Jaafar tribe, who was absconded across the border to the rebel-held Syrian town of Yabroud, north of Damascus. The Jaafars retaliated by kidnapping six Arsal residents—ransoming them to raise the ransom money to free their comrade held in Yabroud. Lebanese security forces helped oversee the hostage exchange, and no charges were brought. Arsal has also been the target of occasional cross-border shelling, presumably by the Syrian military. On May 27, unidentified gunmen attacked a Lebanese border checkpoint near the town, killing three soldiers.

Last August, the Meqdads, another Bekaa Valley Shi’ite clan, went on a kidnapping spree in the Lebanese capital Beirut, taking hostage nearly 40 Syrians and a Turkish business executive to secure the release of a relative who was abducted by rebels in Damascus. Lebanese TV stations converged on the suburban Beirut compound where the hostages were held to broadcast live press conferences by Meqdad leaders airing their demands, ultimatums and threats. Gulf states warned their citizens to leave Lebanon as the Meqdads threatened to kidnap Qataris and Saudis. The spectacle lasted nearly three weeks, a huge embarrassment for the Lebanese government. The army intervened in September, freeing the hostages and arresting several Meqdad militants.

It was also in August of last year the Jaafars joined with two others clans, the Shammas and Sharif, to resist Lebanese security forces trying to destroy their cannabis crops. Police and army troops were wounded when armed clashes briefly broke out. (Al Monitor, May 29; WSJ, May 12)