Hezbol­lah ‘of­fen­sive’ against Trump claim

Mil­i­tant group gives me­dia a tour to show it is not a ‘men­ace’ but a foe of Is­lamic State.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los Bu­los is a special cor­re­spon­dent.

AR­SAL, Le­banon — Hajj Abu Ah­mad, a griz­zled se­nior com­man­der with Hezbol­lah, flashed his laser pointer au­thor­i­ta­tively on a large map as he de­scribed the in­ten­sity of the bat­tle the mil­i­tant group had waged to neu­tral­ize Al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated Syr­ian fight­ers bunkered in this moun­tain­ous area along the bor­der be­tween Le­banon and Syria.

“You had to fight rock to rock, hill to hill, quarry to quarry,” said Abu Ah­mad, who used a nom de guerre, in line with Hezbol­lah’s pol­icy.

His pre­sen­ta­tion, af­ter an edited video of the group’s war­riors in bat­tle (“CDs of the video will be dis­trib­uted,” promised a spokesman), was another salvo in a me­dia of­fen­sive to show that the Le­banese group is not the re­gional “men­ace” Pres­i­dent Trump called it last week, and that it oc­cu­pies a piv­otal role in the fight against Al Qaeda and Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists.

That mes­sage was on full dis­play Satur­day, when the group cor­ralled about 50 SUVs full of Western and lo­cal jour­nal­ists to sur­vey its vic­tory here, among its fa­mously me­dia-shy com­man­ders and fight­ers.

Hezbol­lah, a Shi­ite Mus­lim po­lit­i­cal party, is also Le­banon’s strong­est armed fac­tion. Deemed a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion by the U.S., the group, em­pow­ered by its pa­tron Iran, has an out­sized pres­ence in the re­gion.

Is­rael con­sid­ers the group its most cun­ning foe. Hezbol­lah op­er­a­tives, such as Imad Mugh­niyah (who was as­sas­si­nated in 2008), sound like the stuff of spy movies. Along with Iran and Rus­sia, Hezbol­lah has been in­stru­men­tal in pre­vent­ing the fall of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad at the hands of the rebel fac­tions ar­rayed against him, some backed by the United States.

Since late last week, Hezbol­lah-aligned TV and so­cial me­dia chan­nels have de­liv­ered in­ti­mate ac­counts of the bat­tle to wrest con­trol of Ar­sal and its en­vi­rons from the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Lib­er­a­tion of Syria, which was for­merly associated with Al Qaeda and known as Al Nusra Front. The op­er­a­tion had been con­ducted in co­op­er­a­tion with the Le­banese and Syr­ian armies, who se­cured the perime­ter on both sides of the bor­der and pre­vented the ji­hadis from es­cap­ing.

By Thurs­day, the Is­lamist mil­i­tants were cor­nered in a nearly 2-square-mile area and con­ceded de­feat. A cease-fire was de­clared, along with an agree­ment to trans­fer an es­ti­mated 9,000 in­sur­gents and their fam­i­lies from the area to rebel-held re­gions in Syria. (Its sec­ond phase be­gan Mon­day, Hezbol­lah-af­fil­i­ated me­dia said.)

The tour for jour­nal­ists be­came an oc­ca­sion to sur­vey an area in­ac­ces­si­ble since 2014, when the mil­i­tants had over­run Le­banese army po­si­tions here and taken a few dozen troops hostage. Nine re­main miss­ing and are thought to be in the hands of Is­lamic State, which still has a pres­ence in other parts nearby.

The con­voy, shep­herded by cam­ou­flage-painted Po­laris and Yamaha ATVs zoom­ing back and forth on the harsh ter­rain, fol­lowed a path hewn through the Anti-Le­banon moun­tains to within four miles of the Syr­ian bor­der. The area, long an im­por­tant smug­gling route be­tween Le­banon and Syria, is fa­mous for the apri­cot and cherry trees that line the up­hill as­phalt road. It soon gives way to a for­bid­ding dirt track that weaves past the quar­ries that ex­tract Ar­sal’s other im­por­tant ex­port, stone.

Those quar­ries, as well as the canyons criss­cross­ing the re­gion, had been re­pur­posed into makeshift bunkers by the mil­i­tants, who had for­ti­fied their po­si­tions us­ing tools com­man­deered from lo­cal stone work­ers. The de­fenses had ren­dered heavy weapons mostly in­ef­fec­tive, said Abu Ah­mad in his mil­i­tary brief­ing, forc­ing Hezbol­lah to flush out the ji­hadis in bru­tal close-quar­ters com­bat.

“To be fair to [Al Nusra Front in­sur­gents], they had good de­fen­sive plan­ning,” he said, ad­ding that Hezbol­lah had con­firmed the death of 47 mil­i­tants.

Hezbol­lah fight­ers had also been killed, al­though Abu Ah­mad de­clined to say how many.

His pre­sen­ta­tion was held in an un­der­ground cav­ern first dug out dur­ing Le­banon’s civil war by Pales­tinian guer­ril­las. Years later, the anti-As­sad mil­i­tants had made it a rear-guard rebel base, shut­tling men and ma­teriel be­tween Le­banon and Syria.

On one side stood what ap­peared to be a li­brary, com­plete with re­li­gious books and CDs. One disc was la­beled as a ser­mon ti­tled, “What Goes on Un­der­ground.” Unassem­bled mor­tar shells were scat­tered nearby, while another room held ragged mil­i­tary vests and long boxes con­tain­ing what ap­peared to be rocket launch­ers, as well as aban­doned records of the weapons as­signed to each in­sur­gent.

Another stop at a hilltop mil­i­tary out­post (af­ter a nav­i­ga­tional bungle nearly caused one car to veer into Syria) al­lowed jour­nal­ists to clam­ber over weath­ered­look­ing jeeps equipped with can­nons. A com­man­der ex­horted fight­ers to lower their gaze to avoid the mul­ti­tude of cam­eras.

The trip, said Mo­ham­mad Nabulsi, a Hezbol­lah-aligned an­a­lyst who had joined the tour, was “partly a re­sponse” to Trump’s state­ment about Hezbol­lah.

In a joint news con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton last week with Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, Trump hailed Le­banon “for be­ing on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda and Hezbol­lah.”

“Hezbol­lah is a men­ace to the Le­banese state, the Le­banese peo­ple, and the en­tire re­gion,” said Trump, ac­cord­ing to a White House tran­script. He seemed un­aware that Hariri’s gov­ern­ment had come to power af­ter mak­ing a deal with Hezbol­lah. Hariri re­acted with a se­ries of awk­ward gri­maces.

Is­lamic State is also known as ISIS, ISIL and by its Ara­bic acro­nym, Daesh.

Trump ex­co­ri­ated Hezbol­lah, along with its pa­tron Iran, for “fu­el­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe in Syria” even as its grow­ing mil­i­tary ar­se­nal “threat­ens to start yet another con­flict with Is­rael.”

With this tour, Nabulsi said, Hezbol­lah was say­ing that it was on the front line against ter­ror­ism, “while Amer­ica made Al Qaeda and Daesh and fa­cil­i­tated their growth.”

But Hezbol­lah also had a mes­sage for its au­di­ence in Le­banon, where some agree with Trump’s re­buke that the group puts Le­banon’s in­ter­ests sec­ond to those of Iran.

Through­out the tour, it sought to em­pha­size its Le­banese ori­gins. The pair­ing of Le­banese and Hezbol­lah flags was in­escapable. The mil­i­tary pre­sen­ta­tion opened with the Le­banese na­tional an­them, fol­lowed by that of Hezbol­lah. Near the hilltop po­si­tion stood a rose-cov­ered shrine ded­i­cated to “the Mar­tyrs of the Defense of Le­banon.”

“This is a Le­banese fight, 100%,” said Hadi, a bearded field com­man­der who spoke with breezy con­fi­dence near the shrine. “The first ben­e­fi­ciary of this bat­tle are the peo­ple of Ar­sal who weren’t able to come back and were left with no rights or in­come.”

He added that Hezbol­lah had waited for the “Le­banese state and the whole world” to se­cure Ar­sal, but pol­i­tics had “em­bar­rassed” the army. Fi­nally Hezbol­lah had taken mat­ters into its own hands, though it had no long-term de­signs on the area.

“If the army comes now, we will hand over our po­si­tions and leave. We don’t want to stay in these moun­tains,” said Hadi.

He was soon called away, and the Hezbol­lah spokesman, Mo­ham­mad Afif, gave a quick speech to mark the tour’s end.

True to his word, Afif pro­duced the promised CDs, pressed into the hands of jour­nal­ists by Hezbol­lah’s me­dia team just be­fore they be­gan their long jour­ney back to Beirut.

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