Hezbollah seizing territory along Lebanon’s north-eastern border

Sunday 30/07/2017
Tough terrain. Lebanese Army troops en route to the newly constructed Nimrod military base near Tufayl on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, on July 14. (Nicholas Blanford)

Beirut- A long-awaited assault against extremist mili­tants holed up in moun­tains along Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria is under way with Hez­bollah spearheading the attack and swiftly seizing territory.
The offensive began July 21 as Hezbollah units moved north from their hilltop posts south-east of the town of Arsal into terrain controlled by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), for­merly known as al-Nusra Front. In just a few days, Hezbollah had seized most of the ground held by JFS and was poised to turn its at­tention to the Islamic State (ISIS), which dominates the ground north-east of Arsal.
The Lebanese Army, which has a strong defensive perimeter around Arsal and a line of fortified observa­tion towers along the western flank of the battleground, used artillery fire against groups of militants who tried to infiltrate the town during the fighting.
As this battle is fought in the rug­ged mountains of north-east Leba­non, 32km to the south, the Leba­nese state is establishing a renewed presence along part of the tradi­tionally neglected eastern frontier with Syria. The Lebanese Army’s 4th Land Border Regiment is build­ing a line of fortified observation posts that gives sweeping views over the mountainous terrain and a large expanse of Syria near the iso­lated Lebanese village of Tufail.
The project of establishing land border regiments arose in 2011 when Syria was descending into civil war. The idea was to strength­en Lebanon’s ability to secure its porous and largely unmarked bor­der with Syria.
With the assistance of the United Kingdom, the first Land Border Regiment deployed in early 2013 along the northern border. Since then, two other regiments have been established and arrayed along the eastern border as far south as the slopes of Mount Hermon. The 4th Land Border Regiment plugs a sensitive gap from just south of Arsal to the town of Masnaa on the Beirut-Damascus highway. Hezbol­lah has a presence along this stretch of the border. There are also three camps manned by a pro-Damascus Palestinian faction.
In early 2014, Hezbollah began building a series of compounds on mountain tops in this area to defend villages in the Bekaa Val­ley from militants infiltrating from Syria. At the time, Syria-based mili­tants frequently fired rockets into the Bekaa. In September 2014, an al-Nusra Front militant set off a bomb in a suicide attack at a Hez­bollah checkpoint near Khreibe village, wounding three Hezbol­lah fighters. The following month, al-Nusra fighters briefly overran a Hezbollah compound near the vil­lage of Brital, killing at least four fighters.
Since then, the security situa­tion in the area has calmed down as the fighting in Syria shifted further from the border with Lebanon.
The calm in the area allowed for the Lebanese Army’s newly formed 4th Land Border Regiment to de­ploy into the Tufail area, replacing the Hezbollah fighters who aban­doned their positions. It was a typi­cally Lebanese display of pragma­tism: Hezbollah freed up its fighters from watching a now-quiet stretch of the border for duties elsewhere and the Lebanese state stamped its authority on the remote location for the first time in decades.
The army moved swiftly to build imposing fortified compounds of 5.5-metre-high, rock-filled Hesco blast barriers that dominate the ground to the north, east and south in the Tufail Peninsula, a finger-like extension of Lebanese territory poking into Syria.
From the armour-plated watch­tower, embellished with the Leba­nese flag on all four sides and named after the remains of a small Roman temple nearby, soldiers en­joy extensive views east and south into Syria. They say they are confi­dent that they can observe and in­tercept any attempts to penetrate this section of the border.
The recently abandoned Hezbol­lah outposts consisting of earth-filled oil drums and porta-cabins look frail alongside the army’s new structures. Hezbollah is still in the area but on the Syrian side of the border where they share some posi­tions with the Syrian Army.
At an altitude of 2,300 metres, the terrain in the barren mountains is harsh. New tracks slash through the limestone landscape and thick white dust billows from beneath the wheels of army vehicles as they grind up the hills. In winter, the mountains are blanketed with deep snow, posing another logistical dif­ficulty for troops manning the lofty outposts.
The fighting further north along the border near Arsal has preceded at a speedy pace. It is unclear how long ISIS will be able to hold on when Hezbollah has finished with JFS and turns its attention to the extremists but the outcome will almost cer­tainly spell defeat for the militants at which point Hezbollah is expected to leave the Lebanese side of the border and deploy elsewhere.
That would allow the 4th Land Border Regiment to complete its deployment by moving into the area south of Arsal and build new outposts adjacent to those manned by the 2nd Land Border Regiment. Once that deployment is complete, the Lebanese state will have a full presence along the entirety of Leb­anon’s border with Syria for the first time since independence in 1943.
The next step, it is hoped, is to establish 5th and 6th Land Border Regiments, which would eventual­ly deploy along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.