Ras Baalbek, Lebanon – Abu Leila, a 53-year-old fighter and member of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP), was first trained to carry weapons when the Israeli military occupied large swaths of the country during the Lebanese civil war.
“Everything I know about resistance, about carrying arms to protect this country, started during the Israeli occupation,” Abu Leila, who spoke under a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera, noting he was imprisoned in Israel “for resistance activities” in 1982 and released two years later during a prisoner swap. “Today we are ready to fight takfiri [extremist] groups here.”
Abu Leila and his comrades are now planning to take up arms against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other hardline groups, such as al-Nusra Front. LCP fighters are now teaching a new generation the same types of combat skills that they learned more than three decades ago in Ras Baalbek.
The LCP’s headquarters in Beirut decided to establish its armed wing – which has yet to face off with ISIL or Nusra – in June, after ISIL fighters attacked military posts controlled by Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside the Syrian government. Clashes in June killed 22 people, including Hezbollah and ISIL fighters.
The LCP group boasts dozens of volunteers who patrol the hilly terrain on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek in shifts, 24-hours a day. Without financial or military support, members pay their own expenses, bring their own food and often bring guns from home. LCP says it is also in the process of setting up similar armed groups in other border areas that are vulnerable to infiltration from Syria in coordination with the Lebanese army and Hezbollah.
The Lebanese military declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Muris Shaaban, LCP’s secretary for the local chapter in Ras Baalbek, said the group is guided by principles of “social justice, secularism and equality. We confront the sectarian criminals and extremists in [ISIL] as a non-sectarian group [that includes] Sunnis, Shia, Druze, Christians and others”.
Because LCP does not accept foreign funds, the group’s biggest challenge is obtaining weapons. “Many of us bring our own guns from home, but we don’t have rockets or shells,” he said. “We would accept weapons only if [someone] would donate them without political conditions.”
The communist party is not the first group to volunteer its men to take up arms and support the military and Hezbollah in the area. In 2014, a Christian armed group was created in Ras Baalbek to patrol the village and its surrounding area. Elsewhere in eastern and southern Lebanon, the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah-backed group, serves a similar function.
“Ras Baalbek is one of the most vulnerable areas because there are two main paths from Syria that make it easy for the extremists to reach these mountains,” Shaaban said, adding that the nearby village of Arsal is occupied by groups associated with ISIL.
According to Salem Zahran, a political analyst and researcher who monitors the security situation in the Bekaa Valley region, where Ras Baalbek is located, the LCP and others like it have little effect on the security situation.
This is the ugliest period we've ever endured in the Middle East. We are ready to fight because we love life. We don't love death. We bring our kids here to fight now because we want them to live in peace one day.
“The military situation in the Ras Baalbek area is completely under the control of the Lebanese army,” Zahran told Al Jazeera, noting the military is “as close as 700 metres” to ISIL and Nusra posts in some key strategic areas in the mountains above Ras Baalbek.
Ali, Abu Leila’s 17-year-old son, said he volunteers two or three times a week after the school day ends. “I like to watch football and go out with my friends, but I also come here because the country needs our protection,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s natural that communists would protect this area from aggression. It’s about defending our homes, our people, and living in dignity.”
Rafiq, 16, also volunteers after school. “I come once every two weeks,” he told Al Jazeera. “I learned the communist ideology from my parents, and they’re proud of me for coming here. It’s a humanitarian duty.”
Standing outside a one-room concrete shack the group erected to sleep in while fighters work in shifts, Rafiq said he has tried to recruit schoolmates to join the group: “Some of them don’t think it’s necessary and aren’t interested, but a few have joined.”
On the other side of the border, Hezbollah and the Syrian army have been locked in an intense battle with ISIL and Nusra fighters since May, when Hezbollah launched an offensive in the Qalamoun Mountains.
Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based analyst of Arab political affairs, said that the establishment of new armed groups, such as the LCP fighters, reflects a growing uncertainty among Lebanese residents that the army can secure its borders alone.
“The creation of militias like these says two things: Firstly, it speaks to the threat level from groups like ISIL and [Nusra],” Nashashibi told Al Jazeera. “Secondly, it reflects the potential for violence within Lebanon. It reflects the fact that many groups feel there is no one better to protect their communities than themselves.”
However, the proliferation of yet more armed groups in Lebanon threatens to heighten tensions among different sects and political factions inside Lebanon, Nashashibi added. “We’re basically seeing the disintegration of the state’s central authority. It’s a situation similar to the civil war,” he said, referring to fighting that consumed the country from 1975 until 1990.
“This is the ugliest period we’ve ever endured in the Middle East,” Abu Leila said. “We are ready to fight because we love life. We don’t love death. We bring our kids here to fight now because we want them to live in peace one day.”
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