Lebanon’s looming showdown in Arsal

The Lebanese Army routinely shells ISIS positions and Hezbollah occasionally stages anti-tank missile ambushes.

‘Ring of steel’. A convoy of Lebanese soldiers drives at the entrance of the border town of Arsal in eastern Bekaa Valley. (Reuters)

2017/07/16 Issue: 115 Page: 12

The Arab Weekly
Nicholas Blanford

Beirut- The defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul and its imminent expulsion from its self-declared capital in Raqqa in east­ern Syria leave the extremist group clinging to only a few patches of ground in the Middle East.

One of them is among the bar­ren mountains of the Qalamoun region that straddles Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria where several hundred ISIS fighters are holed up, along with hundreds more from Tahrir al-Sham and Saraya Ahl ash-Sham, a Free Syrian Army coalition.

Lately, there has been intense speculation that the Lebanese Army or Hezbollah will mount a final offensive to crush the mili­tants, drive them out of Lebanon and restore to full state authority in the isolated border town of Arsal. The Sunni-populated town, which is surrounded by refugee encamp­ments, has been out of state con­trol since August 2014 when it was stormed by 700 militants from ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham.

Several Syrian air strikes in the border region and indications of mobilisation of Hezbollah forces suggest that the offensive is im­minent but a question remains over who will — and who should — mount the offensive, Hezbollah or the Lebanese Army.

Hezbollah waged campaigns in the western Qalamoun region in 2014 and 2015, winning back terri­tory on the Syrian side of the border and herding the surviving militants into a 145 sq.km expanse of rugged and desolate mountains and val­leys filled with apricot and cherry orchards.

The militants are essentially hemmed in by a line of outposts and watchtowers manned by the Lebanese Army to the west and Hezbollah positions dotting hill­tops along the north and south flanks. The Lebanese Army rou­tinely shells ISIS positions and Hez­bollah occasionally stages anti-tank missile ambushes.

Earlier in the year, Hezbollah entered negotiations to secure the evacuation of refugees and some militants to Syria. The move was intended to resolve the Arsal prob­lem peacefully or at least to reduce the number of militants ahead of a final push to regain the area. In June, several dozen families re­turned to Syrian Qalamoun but there has been little indication that any fighters are willing to cut a deal that could see them relocated to the Idlib province in northern Syria.

Since early May, signs of a final showdown in the Arsal area have increased. In a speech that month, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s lead­er, called on militants to leave the Arsal area, saying that they had no future if they stayed.

In late May, heavy clashes broke out in the Arsal area between mili­tant groups in what appeared to be an attempt by ISIS to secure better ground in anticipation of a Leba­nese Army or Hezbollah assault. On June 30, five suicide bombers set off explosives during an army raid on two refugee camps on the outskirts of Arsal, wounding seven soldiers and killing a girl. Several days later, two improvised explosive devices targeted soldiers in Arsal without causing casualties. Sources inside Arsal said militants and civilians alike are preparing for a showdown.

“Everyone knows it’s coming, we just don’t know exactly when,” said one resident.

Nasrallah said the time had come to remove the militants from around Arsal.

“The threat still exists on [Arsal’s] outskirts and this matter needs a solution,” he said in a speech July 11. “This matter might be a divisive one. Let the government shoulder its responsibility and we will sup­port you and back you up. If you want us to stay at home, we will. If you want us to join you, we will. But I think the situation has reached its final point.”

While Hezbollah’s battle-hard­ened fighters are well-suited to carrying out such an operation, it could risk backfiring by stirring Sunni-Shia tensions in the coun­try and undermining the integrity of the Lebanese Army if it is left watching the fighting from the side­lines.

It is understood that the army has prepared battle plans for an of­fensive against the militants and, in the past two-and-a-half years, has significantly strengthened its deployment in the area. However, the army requires an order from the government before attacking the militants and it is unclear whether Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hari­ri is prepared to give the necessary authorisation.

The United States and Britain for years have been robust backers of the Lebanese Army, respectively supplying weapons and equipment and helping build new regiments for border protection. An army-led offensive against ISIS would help justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to boost its capa­bilities especially at a time when Washington is looking to dial down its foreign aid spending.

An additional danger lies in the possibility that ISIS will seek to en­ter Arsal at the onset of an attack to mingle with the civilian population and hugely complicate an effort to crush the group. The routes into Arsal are manned by fortified check­points and the Lebanese Army has a good overview of the surrounding area, allowing for warnings if ISIS forces are spotted mobilising for an assault on the town.

However, if the militants breach the army’s “ring of steel,” it would turn the battle from one fought in unpopulated barren mountains to one waged in a cramped urban en­vironment with the risk of incur­ring significant civilian casualties and widespread destruction. It is likely that if Hezbollah does spear­head an assault against the mili­tants, it will stay well clear of Arsal itself to avoid reawakening sectar­ian animosities in Lebanon, which of late have calmed down.

Nicholas Blanford is the author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel (Random House 2011). He lives in Beirut.

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