Lebanon has escalated its war against Sunni extremists in its troubled border region with Syria, launching a full-scale assault on radical groups, including the Islamic State, while Hezbollah is pressing ahead to join the fight.
The Lebanese army shelled on Saturday positions held by ISIS militants in the country’s northeast, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said. The army used artillery and mortars in addition to special forces sent to areas adjacent to the mountains, Al Arabiya reported.
In a display of its determination in the fight against insurgents, Beirut raided two major refugee settlements in the border town of Arsal on June 30. Lebanese soldiers were looking for jihadists inside the camp, where five blew themselves up and killed a girl, wounded some soldiers, according to army reports.
Following the attack, several hundred people in refugee camps were arrested as suspects. It was a precursor for looming escalation of the military campaign. From that day on Lebanon has intensified operations in the border areas. Now it was the time for Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah to step on the stage.
Although some Lebanese politicians rejected the idea, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah justified their projected interference with these words in a televised speech: “It’s high time to end the threat of militant groups in Arsal and little time is left to reach certain reconciliation deals.”
Hezbollah — without any involvement of the Lebanese army — launched an offensive last month on the border, forcing al-Qaeda’s former affiliate al-Nusra militants to leave the area under an evacuation deal. Nusra militants, together with thousands of refugees, left Arsal with Lebanese forces to reach Idlib, northern Syria.
On Friday, Mr. Nasrallah announced that an assault on ISIS militants in the border zone would begin in a few days. His statements about their decision to join the fight and the way of assault, however, stirred up some trouble.
“The Lebanese army will attack Islamic State from the Lebanese side of the border while Hezbollah and the Syrian army will simultaneously attack from the Syrian side,” he said.
Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria, citing sources, said direct military coordination occurred between the Syrian and Lebanese armies regarding the offensive against ISIS.
Rejecting the statements and the news report, a Lebanese military source told Reuters that they would not coordinate with the Syrian army.
Debates over cooperation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army are not limited to Damascus and Beirut. Pentagon acknowledged on Thursday that U.S. special operations forces were in Lebanon.
“Strengthening the Lebanese Army Forces advances U.S. interests in countering ISIS and stemming the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the region,” said Pentagon.
Hezbollah, despite being on the same team with the U the S. in fight against ISIS in Lebanon, ironically denounced U.S. interference in the operations, rejecting the idea of being America’s unlikely ally.
“In Flita and Arsal we fought with support from Iran. Reports of US support are an insult to the Lebanese Army,” vowed Mr. Nasrallah.
Hezbollah, — a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite community –- has been fighting alongside the Syrian army against Sunni rebel factions.
According to reports, the group sent between 7,000 and 10,000 members into Syria to fight in recent years. On the other hand, more than a thousand Lebanese Sunnis and Palestinian refugees in the country rushed to help insurgents in Syria. Arsal, home to over 100,000 Syrian refugees, is still not out of question whether or not it is also a home for ISIS militants.
Lebanese politicians are on a knife-edge under these circumstances, trying to walk a fine line to prevent the Syrian civil war to spill into their country.
ISIS Presence in Lebanon
Having experienced a brutal and sectarian civil war 20 years before the Syrian conflict started, Lebanon was on the brink of being enveloped in a turmoil that killed hundreds of thousands of people in its neighbor.
The conflict in Syria frequently spilled over into Lebanon, flaring small-scale skirmishes between Sunni and Shiite groups in the tiny country. Sunni extremists gradually gained ground in the country in the past six years.
The rise of ISIS on the Lebanese-Syrian border, however, “officially” started in January 2014, when the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing. A new front in the area opened after ISIS militants joined forces with Nusra militants and clashed with Hezbollah fighters and the Syrian army. The Sunni extremists also committed a number of suicide attacks inside Lebanon.
Ersal and Qalamoun in rural border areas have been a stronghold for ISIS and Nusra. The growing popularity of ISIS in specific Sunni circles such as the marginalized youth in Tripoli, Bekaa Valley, and Palestinian refugee camps and infiltration of militants among refugees added fuel to an already tense situation.
Despite rare clashes between ISIS and Nusra, the alliance remained alive until the second group reached an agreement on Thursday with Hezbollah and the Syrian government to leave its positions to the Lebanese government.
Lebanese security sources estimated that the Arsal area was an operational base for roughly 3,000-4,000 fighters, mostly militants devoted to al-Nusra and, since mid-to-late 2014, ISIS.
It is not clear yet whether attacks on ISIS on the border is going to result in a clean sweep. According to Lebanese intelligence and media reports, the presence of newly established ISIS cells in different areas of the country — in Sunni settlements, refugee camps — is still underlining a security threat for the country.