Hezbol­lah, Syria team up in at­tack

Aim is to se­cure Le­banon bor­der area

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - BASSEM MROUE

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.

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