BRITAL, Lebanon: The paved road, once a smuggling route, leads through Hezbollah and Lebanese Army checkpoints to a majestic view of the Qalamoun mountains, perched across the deep valley. Behind the closest peaks is a road that once led from Syria’s Zabadani to the embattled Lebanese border town of Arsal, now severed as a result of Hezbollah and the Syrian army’s takeover of the villages on the Syrian side of the border, from Rankous to Asal al-Ward, and the emptying of the Lebanese border enclave of Tfeil.
At first glance, it is evident why the party placed so much emphasis on controlling the border villages, which its second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, declared earlier this year were firmly in its control, despite suffering the occasional attack from Syrian rebels camped out in the rugged terrain.
The party is believed to maintain numerous ambush points and hidden outposts throughout the mountain range nearby, and residents say they sometimes see unmanned drones flying overhead.
But Hezbollah was not always so firmly entrenched in this majority-Shiite border village, which in October repelled a surprise attack by Nusra Front militants on a party observation point on its mountainous outskirts.
Predominantly Shiite Brital, once home to a thriving weapons trade, and whose residents once even sold arms and trained some rebel fighters aiming to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime, has gone from seeing the Syrian revolution as an extension of the Arab Spring that it could profit from to existential fear at the rise of extremist groups like ISIS along the border.
“We now have a choice between the bad and the worse,” said one former arms smuggler from the village.
Brital has long been fiercely independent, and residents said the village was split between supporters of Hezbollah and others who would have preferred not to see its influence on the rise at the start of the Syrian uprising.
Some say the party has a nonexistent social program in their region of the Bekaa Valley, and has been unable to develop the area or to bring jobs and good quality health care and education.
Socially, the party was a “failure,” the former smuggler said. “They cannot be a state,” he added.
But the rise of ISIS and the Nusra Front transformed the dynamic, convincing many that Hezbollah was prescient in identifying the militant threat.
“Hezbollah intervened and said they would defend the Sayyida Zeinab [shrine] and the others emerged to erase us and cut out our hearts,” said the former smuggler. “We are not in the party but now we would fight on its behalf.”
Hezbollah vehemently argues that its intervention in Syria and the driving away of jihadis from border villages nipped in the bud a potential influx of extremist rebels across the border into Lebanon, going so far as to claim that if it were not for the intervention, militants would have had checkpoints in Jounieh, Beirut and Sidon by now.
But critics of the party say its intervention invited attacks and spillover from the Syrian war into fragile Lebanon. A series of suicide bombings and attacks, both against areas associated with the party and the Lebanese Army, happened after Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Most were claimed by radical Syrian rebels.
But many in Shiite border villages see the party’s actions as protecting them from cross-border attacks, rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Is there an FSA anymore?” the former smuggler asked rhetorically, referring to the umbrella group of moderate Syrian opposition fighters. “I used to oppose Hezbollah’s policies but then I saw that [Sayyed Hasan] Nasrallah had a vision 10 years ahead of its time.”
Their fears of cross-border fallout were realized with the invasion and brief occupation of Arsal, a half hour drive away from Brital, by militants pledging loyalty to ISIS and the Nusra Front back in August and the ensuing hostage crisis involving Lebanese servicemen.
A man who gave access to his land to Hezbollah said the fall of border villages would have easily given access to the militants through the Western mountain range to the towns on the Mediterranean.
That was why when news arrived on the attack on the outskirts of Brital, hundreds or thousands of residents rushed in their pickups and cars to the outskirts and helped hold off the assault, some firing mortars and small arms at the militants’ position until they withdrew.
Locals said the weapons trade stopped with the emergence of extremist militant groups, and the old smuggling routes were closed off by the townsfolk.
After a spate of car bombings against majority-Shiite areas in Lebanon, some of which were reportedly conducted using stolen cars smuggled through Brital, Hezbollah’s presence in the area increased.
Residents say this is the first time the border is so thoroughly sealed. It is a far cry from what one resident said was the norm earlier in the uprising, when rebels would go into town to buy food and supplies to use in their fight, back before Hezbollah entered the fray.
“Even those who used to sell weapons and diesel to the FSA stopped doing so,” the former smuggler who was involved in the arms trade said, adding that residents provided all kinds of small arms and artillery.
When asked why residents aided the rebels, the ex-smuggler said: “It was the Arab Spring.”
He said the village had sold weapons to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood back during a short-lived uprising in Hama against then-President Hafez Assad in 1982. But it was also a lucrative trade for a region that feels abandoned by the state.
Back before the emergence of extremist rebels, Hezbollah had little recourse to impose its will on the clannish and fiercely independent region. There were some areas where residents said portraits of Nasrallah and Hezbollah were not allowed, and roads where its vehicles were not permitted to go through.
The lack of development in the area around Baalbek prompted many local farmers to plant marijuana openly for hash export abroad, driving prices down as the supply skyrocketed.
But now, residents say the majority supports Hezbollah’s actions and many villagers of Brital have allowed the party to use their land to protect the village.
“I give them my land and tractors,” said the man who allowed the party access to use his land.
“We closed [the road into Brital] after Qusair,” he added, referring to a Syrian town invaded by Hezbollah in June 2013. “[Rebels] used to come and buy food, but how can we keep it open if the village’s people are getting killed?”