Interactive: Lebanon under Syrian rocket fire

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Interactive map shows hundreds of rocket and missile strikes on Lebanon fired by Syrian rebels and army aircraft. (Image: Al-Akhbar / Google Maps Engine)

By: Marc Abizeid

Published Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thousands of shells, rockets and missiles fired from Syria or Syrian army aircraft have struck Lebanese border villages since the neighboring conflict erupted three years ago, killing at least 30 people and wounding 90 others by the most conservative estimates based primarily on Lebanese state media reports.

Privately-owned media typically place the casualty figures much higher, meaning actual tolls could be more than double.

In the interactive map embedded below, Al-Akhbar traced a timeline of the strikes and tried to pinpoint their locations along the different regions of Lebanon’s 375 kilometer-long border with Syria to help visualize what have become almost daily incidents.

The strikes are categorized under three sections: stray fire and cross-border clashes (which are concentrated in Lebanon's northernmost district of Akkar), rebel attacks (which are spread out along the eastern and northeastern border), and Syrian army air strikes (which are limited to the eastern town of Ersal and its rugged outskirts).

Marking the locations of strikes also helps determine their nature, indicated by their proximity to the frontier. Whereas rebel strikes often land deep (up to 15 kilometers) inside Lebanese territory, stray fire such as those on Akkar usually strike within a few hundred meters to a kilometer from the border.

Bekaa Valley

This month alone Syrian rebels have launched a total of 45 rockets into Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley on 12 separate occasions, nine of which were claimed by either the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or al-Nusra Front in Lebanon, representing an escalation in these types of attacks.

The al-Qaeda-inspired groups cite Hezbollah’s role in the recent battle for Yabrud as their motivation to carry out reprisals against towns in eastern Lebanon seen as sympathetic to the powerful movement.

Such attacks were nearly unheard of one year ago. But the security situation on the eastern and northeastern border quickly deteriorated in April 2013 coinciding with the battle for Qusayr.

The two-month-long government offensive to retake the city, in which Hezbollah first publicly acknowledged its fighters were engaged in Syrian battles, triggered a wave of rocket attacks against towns in the northeastern Hermel district.

Rebel groups insisted Hezbollah's intervention in Syria’s war justified the attacks on Lebanon, which would soon expand to include car bombs targeting civilian areas of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley.

Attacks on Hermel decreased rapidly after pro-government forces retook Qusayr in June 2013, but have continued sporadically against villages in the eastern Bekaa.

With Syrian rebels having retreated westward towards the Qalamoun mountain range near Lebanon’s eastern border following their bitter defeat in Yabrud this week, Lebanon could witness a temporary increase in rocket strikes. But with their supply-lines from Homs reportedly cut, and as Syrian forces mount a new offensive against their hideouts along the border, striking at Lebanon with the same frequency may prove challenging in the future.

Akkar

Yet the majority of strikes on Lebanon are committed not by rebels, but are the result of stray shelling concentrated in the Akkar district on villages built along the Kabir river which demarcates the country’s northern border with Syria.

Border towns began to witness sporadic shelling towards the end of 2011 with the entrance of Lebanese fighters who answered calls by Salafi preachers to join the uprising in Syria. By mid-2012, dozens of once tranquil towns in Akkar had become deeply entrenched in Syria’s war with an untold number of families fleeing constant bombardment.

Some of the shells hit Akkar’s villages by mistake during the relentless battles that ensued on the other side of the river for control of Tal Kalakh and other Syrian border villages. But in many cases, Syrian forces strike the villages after coming under fire from rebels inside Lebanon.

The most deadly strikes on towns in Akkar target an area of the district known as Wadi Khaled, in the country’s northeasternmost corner, where Syrian rebels have set up bases.

The area, just a couple kilometers east of Syria's Tal Kalakh, is known to host "safe houses" for opposition fighters. Their sympathizers in towns across Wadi Khaled were revealed to have organized networks to recruit, train and transport weapons and fighters to Syria.

As a result, the area is one of the most volatile in country, with residents struggling to cope with the constant bombardment that continues until this day.

Ersal

Previously unknown to most living outside the Bekaa Valley, the town of Ersal, situated some 12 kilometers west of the Syrian border, has become a focal point in the spillover of the Syrian war into Lebanon.

The town and its rugged outskirts, whose residents overwhelmingly back the overthrow of Syria’s government, have been battered with Syrian air strikes on suspected rebel targets in the area. Tens of thousands of refugees have taken advantage of the porous border to cross into Ersal, but the area has also become a major transit point to smuggle weapons and fighters.

The Syrian army launched its first air strikes on the territory in September 2012, with Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman condemning it as a breach of his country's sovereignty. Syrian choppers returned six months later in March 2013 with a new round of strikes. Suleiman vowed to respond to further attacks.

Syrian choppers have launched at least 25 more attacks since then, with the Lebanese army only claiming to have responded with anti-aircraft guns on a single occasion on December 30, 2013. Somewhere along the way the government gave up on issuing warning statements.

The single deadliest attack on Ersal occurred on August 3, 2013, when Syrian helicopters fired missiles at a group of Syrian refugees gathered on the border town of Khirbet Daoud, east of Ersal, apparently mistaking them for fighters. Nine people were reportedly killed, including women and children, and another nine were wounded.

January 17 attack

In another bloody incident that inflamed tensions in Ersal, eight people were killed when a barrage of rockets fired from Syria struck the town on January 17, 2014. Among the victims were six children, five of them siblings from the Hujairi family aged between 18 months and 10 years.

Residents and local officials were quick to point the finger at Hezbollah and the Syrian army, issuing a torrent of vengeful statements. But the truth behind who perpetrated the crime is far more complicated.

Ersal was not the only town that came under attack that day. Approximately 20 rockets fired within a one-hour time frame, between 10:45 am and 12:00 pm, struck at least seven separate areas that included Labwe (west of Ersal), towns in the far north of the Hermel district, and regions in between.

All of those areas with the exception of Ersal had previously been targeted by Syrian rebels who controlled the rural valleys along Syria’s western border with Lebanon from where they typically launch their arsenals.

Ten more rockets struck the Eastern Bekaa that evening, bringing the total to 30 for the day. ISIS, at which point was already in battle with other rebel groups, claimed responsibility for the day’s attacks in a tweet using what was later believed to have been a fake account.

It’s more likely that the rockets that struck Ersal fell short of their intended targets around Labwe. From the map, we can see the series of strikes on January 17 that landed in a line of towns stretching from Ras Baalbek down to Labwe. The Lebanese army determined that the rockets were launched either from Syria, or in the rural valleys of Lebanon east of Ersal along the border, which would indicate those rockets had to fly over Ersal to reach their targets in the Bekaa.

But as is often the case with the mysteries surrounding the many crimes and massacres of the Syrian war, the truth remains elusive.

Comments

Very cool. What is the data source?

Many thanks :)

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