The battle for Arsal

One unsuspecting Lebanese village has become the focal point of the battle for perceptions of the Syrian conflict.

By DANIEL NISMAN
January 11, 2012 16:35
4 minute read.
Mikati speaks after announcement of new cabinet.

najib mikati_311 reuters. (photo credit: Lebanese PM Mikati speaks after announcement of ne)

 
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Immediately after another deadly suicide bombing ripped through central Damascus on Friday, the Assad Regime, the Syrian opposition, and their allies abroad unloaded accusations as to the identity of the perpetrators. While opposition's assertion of a regime-orchestrated conspiracy has fallen on deaf ears around the world, this latest bombing certainly bolsters Assad's claim that radical Al Qaeda-linked militants have joined the ranks of collective struggle to topple him.  Regardless of the actual perpetrators, both Assad and the opposition understand that perceptions of Syria descending into sectarian chaos only further cement the international community's hesitation to expedite his ousting. At the base of Assad's claims lies the town of Arsal, a sleepy village in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, whose unsuspecting citizens have become embroiled in a heated debate which may just decide the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

Arsal was catapulted into the global spotlight immediately after twin car bombings struck Damascus on December 23, 2011. After the attacks, Syrian officials based their claims of Al Qaeda involvement on statements made days prior by Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, who stated that Jihadists were infiltrating into Syria through illegal border crossings. Ghosn claimed that Arsal, a Sunni village of 40,000 people located 35 kilometers from the Syrian border, had become a hotbed for these activities. The statements sparked outrage amongst Arsal's residents, who claimed that there was little evidence to suggest that the town was harboring Al Qaeda extremists. While village elders admitted that some local mosques were known as bastions of fundamentalism, they enjoyed little influence over the town's residents.  In the days that followed, Arsal became the focal point of a heated debate in Lebanon over the existence of Al Qaeda extremists in the country.

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