Hezbol­lah faces tough ter­rain in bor­der bat­tle

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The bar­ren, rocky hill­tops that form Hezbol­lah’s new front line with ji­hadists at the Syr­ian-Le­banese bor­der were tough to cap­ture and sup­ply. Hezbol­lah com­man­der Hajj Abu Ali says the ex­pe­ri­ence could prove use­ful in fu­ture bat­tles. Mil­i­tary jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks make a slow, bruis­ing progress up newly bull­dozed dirt tracks to the moun­tains near the Le­banese town of Ar­sal to ferry food and sup­plies to forces there as fight­ing rages in the val­ley be­low. “Each bat­tle has its own dif­fi­cul­ties,” Abu Ali said, stand­ing on a bombed-out hill­top bunker cap­tured from Nusra Front mil­i­tants in the area known as Juroud Ar­sal.

This is the lat­est front for Hezbol­lah in its bat­tle with mil­i­tants to se­cure Le­banon’s Syr­ian bor­der, part of the wider role the Iran-backed group has played in sup­port of Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad in the six-year-long war in Syria. Hezbol­lah has made rapid ad­vances against Nusra Front since launch­ing the of­fen­sive jointly with the Syr­ian army on Fri­day, aim­ing to clear ji­hadists out of their last bor­der foothold.

Mor­tar fire pounded tar­gets in the val­ley and jets struck on the Syr­ian side of the bor­der dur­ing a me­dia trip to the area on Tues­day. Plumes of grey smoke tow­ered into the sky. “What is tough in some bat­tles is that ar­eas are densely pop­u­lated, with many civil­ians. Here you can shell more freely, it’s open and there aren’t many peo­ple. But the ter­rain is the dif­fi­cult bit - it’s hard to cover ground, and we have to open new roads as we go along,” Abu Ali said.

Since the op­er­a­tion be­gan, Nusra Front has al­most been van­quished, Hezbol­lah says, and the next tar­get is a pocket of ter­ri­tory held by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. As Hezbol­lah bat­tles ji­hadists in this lat­est of­fen­sive, the Le­banese army has adopted a de­fen­sive pos­ture guard­ing the nearby town of Ar­sal. A big re­cip­i­ent of US and Bri­tish mil­i­tary sup­port, it has not taken part. Hezbol­lah com­man­ders be­lieve the of­fen­sive will soon be over, and say the bat­tle is pro­vid­ing valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence. “It could help pre­pare us for fu­ture bat­tles,” Abu Ali said.

But the bat­tle has been hard fought, mainly be­cause of ter­rain that was long an ideal base for Nusra Front - Al-Qaeda’s for­mer Syria branch and now leader of Is­lamist al­liance, Tahrir AlSham - as well as for Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and other in­sur­gents. On this par­tic­u­lar hill­top, mil­i­tants had bar­ri­caded them­selves be­hind sand­bags and dug trenches into the hard stone ground. “It was easy for them to dig in here and shoot at who­ever raised their head com­ing up the hill,” Abu Ali said. Hezbol­lah had lost fighters that way, he said. “We dealt with it us­ing ar­tillery and air strikes. We found eight (in­sur­gent) bod­ies here. Oth­ers fled from the area, some on mo­tor­bikes.” A black­ened stove, an up­turned cof­fee jar and a shred­ded green tar­pau­lin roof cover were the only signs left of the Nusra mil­i­tants.

Ex­is­ten­tial Bat­tle

Abu Ali said the fight to cap­ture the sur­round­ing hill­tops be­gan at dawn on the first day of the op­er­a­tion and lasted 11 hours. Ten Hezbol­lah fighters were killed, he said. Se­cu­rity sources say some two dozen He­bol­lah fighters have been killed over­all, and nearly 150 mil­i­tants. At a check­point fur­ther back from the front, Hezbol­lah fighters ur­gently waved through an am­bu­lance with blacked out win­dows re­turn­ing along the same bumpy dirt track, sign­posted “to Wadi Al-Kheil”, a val­ley re­cap­tured on Mon­day. Tanks, tents and a field clinic sat in the shade of apri­cot trees nearby.

Hezbol­lah has lost hun­dreds of fighters in­clud­ing top com­man­ders in Syria. It says the bat­tle there is an ex­is­ten­tial one to stop ex­trem­ists spread­ing to Le­banon. Its Le­banese crit­ics say it has fu­elled mil­i­tant at­tacks in Le­banon. A Shi­ite cleric dressed in com­bat fa­tigues prayed next to mor­tar can­non em­place­ments over­look­ing the val­ley on Tues­day. One fighter was con­fi­dent of vic­tory soon, and dis­mis­sive of the en­emy. “See that moun­tain? That’s where they were the day be­fore yes­ter­day. Now look where they are,” he said, point­ing out sev­eral kilo­me­tres of ground Hezbol­lah had taken. They are noth­ing.” — Reuters

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