ISIS delivered a video of the captured Lebanese soldiers to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam today, following last week’s bloody clashes in the Lebanese border town Arsal. Militants of the Al-Qaeda branches Al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) battled with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) for five-days from August 2 after the LAF arrested prominent Syrian rebel commander Imad Ahmad Jomaa.
Rebels later stormed an Arsal police station and abducted at least 20 security personnel including members of the Internal Security Forces (ISF).
The Lebanese government’s official stance of dissociation from the surrounding conflicts in the region, especially that in Syria, is proving difficult, especially as the ISF increasingly struggle to scrutinise the influx from Syria to prevent armed groups from fighting in Lebanese towns.
Within the last two weeks, Lebanon’s precarious geopolitical position vis-à-vis Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State, began to irrevocably manifest itself. Bordering Syria and the Occupied Territories, the country is currently seeing its land contested from all sides. The southern border witnesses sporadic fighting and tension between Israel and Hezbollah, is a constant threat, as is its eastern frontiers, where the recent five-day episode of clashes claimed the lives of 19 troops, 60 militants in addition to more than 15 civilians.
Arsal, which is predominantly Sunni, hosts a large refugee community of at least 100,000 Syrians, experienced smaller clashes last year, also caused by Syrian rebel groups. This time, allegedly spurred on by the arrest of Imad Jomaa. Fighting broke out as armed Islamist insurgents crossed the border in to Lebanon to take control over Arsal’s Syrian rebel base camp, The Daily Star newspaper reported.
The threats led to an intensive bolstering of the LAF. This week, the UK ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher said that Lebanon’s allies, including the UK, “now more than ever before” should consider how to support Lebanon’s efforts in strengthening the stability and sovereignty of their forces.
ISIS benefits Hezbollah and the Syrian regime
Security is of highest priority in Lebanon; and LAF, with its peacekeeping efforts is experiencing a lot of pressure to fulfil this need. The current political spill over, pre-existing since the Hezbollah’s running support and the Lebanese extension of the Syrian regime, is clearly seen through last week’s events. The fact that Hezbollah is militarily supreme over the Lebanese Forces, to the extent that Saudi Arabia sent a substantial grant earlier this year, hoping to change this eminence, is a key issue to Lebanon’s security. According to a new report by Carnegie, even this bolstering of the LAF is supporting and protecting Hezbollah, as their securitisation of the borders would prevent rebels from crossing Lebanese borders. As the LAF is not the main security force in Lebanon, the Lebanese policy of dissociation is made impossible.
In their attempt to create an Islamic state, the Al-Qaeda branches are seeing the Syrian regime and its Lebanese extension, Hezbollah, as a sizeable enemy
Meanwhile, both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are benefiting from ISIS’ scattering and pushing back of the Syrian opposition, especially of the strong Al-Qaeda branch Al-Nusra Front. They overlooked the expansion of these groups as their missions were operating in areas controlled by regime opposition groups. Furthermore, the international attention of the Islamic State and similar groups have evidenced and justified the regime’s heavy crack down on rebel groups.
Hence, an international justification of the regime’s brutal human rights violations, war crimes and heavy crackdown on rebel groups based on a hoped-for amalgamated image of rebel groups with ISIS’ monstrous reputation, would be far-fetched. Moreover, since the start of the revolution, Syrian rebels have settled in Lebanese border towns, and the LAF has rarely engaged in armed confrontations with them. In contrast, in both north and south Lebanon, the ISF and LAF have fought several battles against Sunni Islamist extremist groups, as they sought to destabilise Lebanon by taking control of Sunni towns such as Arsal.
MEMO asked Mario Abou Zeid from the Beirut-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace what checks and balances the forces have to consider if they want to stand a chance against the tightly knit structures stirring up the fragile stability of Lebanon. He assured that the forces face these enemies with their new $1 billion donation in direct support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Lebanese army and the armed security forces are in the process of recruiting more personnel. “They are also expecting to receive more technologically advanced equipment,” he informed, as well as weapons and ammunition from both France and the United States.
Not completely convinced of the sufficiency of the new contribution, he argued that the army doesn’t have the equipment or personnel needed to exercise “full-fledged control” over the borders, and added, referring to Hezbollah “neither is it the sole actor”. To prevent similar attacks and confrontations on Lebanese soil, he explained, the government is trying to enforce its policy of dissociation and provide support for the Lebanese armed and security forces by obtaining advanced equipment and recruiting the needed personnel to exercise its legitimate role.
In his recent analysis Abou Zeid explained how Hezbollah designed the pushing of ISIS fighters into Arsal so as to “trap” them in confrontations with other Syrian rebels who had fled or lost battles in Syria. In this way, ISIS would be weakened without Hezbollah exerting any effort. Nevertheless, it meant obligation of LAF to step in and maintain stability, compromising the government’s policy of dissociation. The Lebanese army conquest of the border town of Arsal profits Hezbollah, as it attempts to control the vital supplies transfer of Qalamoun.
According to the Carnegie analyst, once the forces’ ranks are filled and arsenal refurbished, the Lebanese army “should have better chances of maintaining peace and stability in the country.”
Meanwhile, according to the Lebanese Armed Forces…
“The army saved Lebanon from killer ‘sectarian strife-seekers’ by the Arsal battle,” Lebanon’s Army chief General Jean Kahwagi told local newspaper As-Safir in remarks published on Monday. “Had the army lost, they [jihadists] would have entered Akkar, and from there they would have reached the sea and declared their own state,” Kahwagi warned.
The Daily Star reported today that difficulties arose during the negotiations to free the soldiers, in which the Committee of Muslim Scholars is involved along with Ahmad Al-Qusair, a former spokesperson for the Free Syrian Army who is acting as a go-between. Al-Qusair gave a “gloomy outlook” for any forthcoming solution. Allegedly, the talks were stagnating as militants’ orders would come at “too high a cost as far as the Lebanese government was concerned”.
This leads to questions regarding what structurally has to change in the government’s handling and negotiations with groups such as the Islamic State and whether a LAF takeover of Arsal would benefit stability or indeed be a step towards a policy of association, in light of the recent strengthening of Hezbollah’s position.