Lebanon’s looming showdown in Arsal
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.