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Ras Baalbek stands united against ISIS

Source: The Daily Star - Lebanon: The streets of Ras Baalbek, in northeast Lebanon, were eerily calm, intercepted at times by the sounds of the Lebanese Army’s military vehicles cruising by, the four-by-fours of Hezbollah’s Resistance Brigades not far behind. Most residents had opted to stay indoors while clashes ensued over the weekend between the military and Islamist militants in the town’s outskirts. Some of the elderly, as well as business owners, had gathered around the village square. Those who ventured outdoors after the altercation denied the quiet of Ras Baalbek’s streets was due to fear.

Elie Mourad, a teacher from the town, says residents are not afraid of ISIS or the Nusra Front, whose members are believed to be hiding in caves just beyond the town, which borders Syria. Instead, he said, they are ready to fight them.

“The residents are strong because they trust the Lebanese Army’s ability to thwart the terrorists and prevent them from gaining control of any part of Lebanese territory, including our village,” Mourad said.

The Syria-based militants, mostly ISIS members, launched a surprise attack on the Army’s military post in Tallet al-Hamra early morning Friday, prompting clashes that endured for over 16 hours. The militants briefly overran the post, but the Army was able to regain control after calling for reinforcements.

The attack posed a serious threat to the village of Ras Baalbek, which lies a mere 5 kilometers from the post. The fighting left eight Lebanese soldiers killed and wounded at least 22. There are believed to be around 40 militants positioned in the outskirts of Ras Baalbek.

On a given day, there are about 1,500-2,000 people in Ras Baalbek. The majority of the town’s total population of 7,000 live in Beirut. Mourad said few return home during the weekends, while others only visit during the summer months.

He added that the role of the Resistance Brigades – a group of Ras Baalbek youth trained by Hezbollah – was to monitor the entrances to Ras Baalbek to prevent suspicious individuals from entering.

Mourad does not believe that ISIS was targeting Ras Baalbek for its predominately Christian population; rather he believes the strategic location of the town would help the militant group gain the one thing it needs the most: a foothold.

Mourad’s father, Shehadeh, in his 80s, supports this view.

Shehadeh said Tallet al-Hamra and the surrounding valleys act as a natural passage between Lebanon and Syria. He added that decades earlier, shepherds would use the route to transport their herd from the Syrian desert to the mountains of Kesrouan. It became the principal smuggling route when the town still had a Syrian military presence.

Shehadeh said that whoever controls Tallet al-Hamra controls this vital route into Lebanon. The area also connects Ras Baalbek’s outskirts to those of Arsal and Al-Qaa.

The elderly man also said the militants were attracted to the relatively good living standards enjoyed by the residents of Ras Baalbek. If infiltrated, ISIS and Nusra could hypothetically seize cars, property and money from residents, he said.

 

 

Lebanese army_Ras Baalbek

 

Baalbek MP Walid Sukkarieh said he believed the militants were not seeking to control the town, but rather the steep hill on which Tallet al-Hamra is perched. The small number of militants who attempted to overrun the post during the battles was evidence of this strategic aim, he added.

Sukkarieh, a retired Army general, speculated the raid might even have been a reaction to the Interior-Ministry-backed decision to raid Roumieh Prison’s Block B earlier this month.

He raised the question of how the government could conduct negotiations with the militant groups, which are still holding 25 Lebanese servicemen captive following clashes in Arsal in August, while they seek to undermine Lebanon’s stability by attacking its soldiers.

But while the majority of Ras Baalbek’s residents expressed a willingness to fight the militants, not all here live without fear. Marie Barakat, a housewife, said she has had enough and wants to leave Lebanon as a result of the precarious security situation.

“I’m losing the passion I had for this country and I’m preparing to immigrate with my four children and husband to Canada where my sister lives,” she said, while leaving the local church.

“I see the pictures and watch the videos of what ISIS does, the killing, beheading and holding women captive. Isn’t this what they will do if they enter this village?”

These concerns were echoed by a high-ranking member of the Resistance Brigades.

Introducing himself as Tanious, he said that the Brigades were helping to guard and defend Ras Baalbek by taking night shifts to protect the eastern side of the village, all under the supervision of Hezbollah.

“If we didn’t carry weapons, wouldn’t we have the same fate as the Christians of Iraq and Syria?” he asked.

Tanious said he joined the Brigades last summer when jihadis began positioning themselves by the village outskirts and kidnapping residents for ransom, in particular quarry workers.

He added Hezbollah was a natural ally for the Christians of Lebanon after ISIS became a common enemy.

Ras Baalbek’s Mayor Hisham al-Arja said the extremist militants had wanted to overrun the town, adding that locals had the right to carry weapons to protect themselves against another attack.

Arja conveyed the relief of residents after the Army summoned its airborne regiment and reinforcements. He also said that residents had not left their village during the clashes, and many of village’s Beirut residents returned home over the weekend to check on their belongings.

 
Written by The Levant