Lebanon’s surrender to Hezbollah
Hundreds of Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters are camping on the Lebanese-Syrian border in an area known on the Lebanese side as Juroud Arsal and on the Syrian side as the Western Qalamoun Mountains. The presence of both militia organisations goes back several years and there have been skirmishes between the two groups.
ISIS occupies the northern areas of the barren lands while Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, controls the southern end. There is also a faction of the Syrian Free Army in the area.
Recently, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian Army tried to remove all other military positions in the area. A huge media campaign was launched inside Lebanon resulting in a palpable increase in anti-Syrian refugee sentiments. The refugees have become the scapegoat for all of Lebanon’s ills.
The military campaign covered all 400 sq.km of the tough terrain of Juroud Arsal, giving Hezbollah and the Syrian Army almost complete control of the area. Whatever armed militias were in the area were virtually under siege.
Analysts pointed out that Hezbollah could have ended the presence of those terrorist groups in the area any time since 2015. Most of the fighters were from Qalamoun Mountain villages and towns that had fallen under Hezbollah’s military control at that year. Hezbollah had used the presence of terrorist groups in the area as a weapon to fend off criticism of its Syrian adventure. The strategy was to show the Lebanese that terrorist groups on Lebanese soil in Juroud Arsal were ready to attack were it not for the protective presence of Hezbollah militias.
One of the clauses of the recent US-Russia ceasefire agreement in southern Syria, prepared in coordination with Jordan and Israel, forbids the presence of Iranian forces or their proxy militias within 40km of the Syrian border with Israel in the occupied Golan Heights and the Syrian borders with Jordan. The Syrian regime accepted the agreement and Iran quickly removed its forces from the area without a whisper of protest. Tehran knew that challenging both superpowers would be futile; it would be best to take it on the chin and make up for the loss elsewhere.
Hezbollah’s military campaign in Arsal is an Iranian initiative. The objective is to gain control of the land corridor from Damascus to Lebanon via Homs. Arsal lies smack in the middle of that line. It looks like Tehran has decided that the presence of terrorist organisations along that line is no longer needed for full control of the area.
It seems that the battle for Juroud Arsal had two major objectives. The first was to seal Iran’s direct and indirect control of the area on the Syrian side and the second was to complete the plan to gain full control of Lebanon. Shedding light on Hezbollah’s strategy to achieve the second objective is in order.
Since Hezbollah’s incursion in the Syrian crisis, the party’s leadership has made a mockery of all opposition in Lebanon to its decision. It purposely ignored calls for withdrawing the party’s militia from Syria and counter-attacked with a campaign to silence all political forces in Lebanon.
By completing its military campaign in Juroud Arsal, the party wants to show that the Lebanese people, and especially its political partners, not only side with its Syrian adventure but also support its role in combating terrorist organisations on Lebanese soil.
What’s incredible is that everyone knows that the reason for the presence of the terrorist groups in Qalamoun’s villages and towns was Hezbollah’s invasion of those villages and towns in the first place. Knowingly or unknowingly, the groups served an Iranian agenda.
The military operations in Arsal coincided with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit to Washington. He asked US President Donald Trump not to escalate the financial sanctions against Hezbollah, arguing that the sanctions would hurt all Lebanese. He asked for military aid but most of all he wanted to use the campaign in Juroud Arsal to insist on Lebanon’s determination to fight terrorism.
It must be pointed out that the Lebanese Army did not take part in the military operations in Juroud Arsal. The Lebanese government and the army, however, are dealing with Hezbollah’s campaign as if it were a legitimate war. There was no sign of an official embarrassment from the fact that a war is taking place on Lebanese territory without the direct supervision and control of the government and the army.
The government’s complete surrender to Hezbollah’s agenda shows the extent to which it has lost any capacity to reverse the militant group from hijacking its sovereignty. It is possible to say that Lebanon is officially within the sphere of Iranian influence.
When the battle at Arsal is over, Hezbollah and, of course, Iran behind it will be able to repeat to the Lebanese the same discourse that followed the liberation of Lebanon’s southern border in 2000. On that occasion, Hezbollah claimed it had single-handedly liberated the southern border, sweeping aside the enormous sacrifices of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian martyrs since 1982.
Once the operations in Arsal are over, the head of Hezbollah will tell the Lebanese people that he has liberated them from Israeli occupation and from terrorism and they must now hand over their fate to him.