Hezbollah, Syria team up in attack
Aim is to secure Lebanon border area
BEIRUT — The Syrian army and members of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group kicked off a ground offensive Friday aimed at ending the yearslong presence of hundreds of militants in a border area between the two countries.
The offensive was widely expected after recent negotiations with militants to leave the area failed. The battle will be fought by Syrian troops and Hezbollah gunmen on the Syrian side of the border, while the Lebanese army will likely lead the fight against the militants on the Lebanese side.
On Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the country’s military was preparing an operation to secure a lawless section of the border with Syria, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah suggested in a speech last week that a joint operation was in the works with the Lebanese and Syrian militaries to expel insurgents from the border area.
Government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media reported that military operations began early Friday from two fronts on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal and the Syrian village of Fleeta. Arsal is about 50 miles south of the Syrian city of Homs.
The media agency said Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters captured some areas from the militants and killed and wounded a number of extremists.
The Syrian opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian warplanes struck the area. It added that Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters captured some areas from insurgents.
The rugged, mountainous region is a stronghold of Syria’s al-Qaida branch, known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as well as the Islamic State extremist group and the Levant People’s Brigades. Friday’s fighting was concentrated in areas controlled by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Video released by Syrian Central Military Media shows Hezbollah’s artillery pounding militant positions, and drone footage shows smoke billowing from areas controlled by the militants.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the Lebanese army shelled an area on the border to prevent a group of militants from entering the Arsal area, which is home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled civil war in their country. It added that the Lebanese army has asked air organizations to accompany Syrian refugees to safer areas.
The militant-held areas are surrounded from all sides, leaving them with no place to withdraw to.
Hezbollah says the border area has been used in the past to launch attacks deep inside Lebanon, including a wave of bombings since 2013 that have killed scores of people.
In 2014, militants briefly stormed Arsal and captured more than two dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen. Al-Qaida exchanged the troops it was holding, while nine soldiers taken by Islamic State fighters are still missing.
The attack in the Lebanon-Syria border area occurred as fighting between two of Syria’s strongest militant groups spread in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib with al-Qaida-linked fighters trying to capture a main border crossing point with Turkey.
Friday’s fighting between the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee focused on the Bab al-Hawa crossing.
The Levant Liberation Committee, a coalition of several insurgent groups, suffered a blow a day earlier after the powerful Nour el-Din el-Zinki faction withdrew in protest against the fighting with Ahrar al-Sham.
The Observatory said the Levant Liberation Committee couldn’t capture the border crossing. It added that a convoy of fighters from Nour el-Din el-Zinki and Failq al-Sham headed to the fight with the objective of dividing the two groups.
The group said three days of fighting between the two rival groups left 85 people dead, including 68 fighters from both sides.