Le­banese army pre­pares to oust ISIS

On other side of bor­der, Hezbol­lah, Syr­ian forces will at­tack the mil­i­tant group

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - BASSEM MROUE

BEIRUT — Le­banon’s U.S.backed mil­i­tary is gear­ing up for a long-awaited as­sault to dis­lodge hun­dreds of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants from a re­mote cor­ner near the Syr­ian bor­der, seek­ing to end a years­long threat posed to neigh­bor­ing towns and vil­lages by the ex­trem­ists.

The cam­paign will in­volve co­op­er­a­tion with the mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah and the Syr­ian army on the other side of the bor­der — although Le­banese au­thor­i­ties in­sist they are not co­or­di­nat­ing with Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s gov­ern­ment.

Of­fi­cials said the as­sault could prove costly for the un­der­equipped mil­i­tary and risk ac­ti­vat­ing Is­lamic State sleeper cells in the coun­try.

The tiny Mediter­ranean na­tion has been spared the wars and chaos that en­gulfed sev­eral coun­tries in the re­gion since the so-called Arab Spring up­ris­ings be­gan in 2011, but it has not been able to evade threats to its se­cu­rity, in­clud­ing sec­tar­ian in­fight­ing and ran­dom car bomb­ings, par­tic­u­larly in 2014, when mil­i­tants linked to al-Qaida and the Is­lamic State over­ran the bor­der re­gion, kid­nap­ping Le­banese sol­diers.

The years­long pres­ence of ex­trem­ists in the bor­der area has re­sulted in the shelling of neigh­bor­ing towns and vil­lages as well as the kid­nap­pings of vil­lagers for ran­som. Car bombs made in the area and sent to other parts of the coun­try, in­clud­ing the Le­banese cap­i­tal, Beirut, have killed scores of ci­ti­zens.

Aided di­rectly by the United States and Bri­tain, the army has ac­cu­mu­lated steady suc­cesses against the mil­i­tants in the past year, slowly claw­ing back ter­ri­tory, in­clud­ing strate­gic hills re­taken in the past week. Au­thor­i­ties say it’s time for an all-out as­sault.

The planned op­er­a­tion fol­lows a six-day mil­i­tary of­fen­sive by the Le­banese Shi­ite mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah that forced al-Qaida-linked fight­ers to flee the area on the out­skirts of the town of Ar­sal, along with thou­sands of civil­ians.

In a clear dis­tri­bu­tion of roles, the army is now ex­pected to launch the at­tack on the Is­lamic State. In the past few days, the army’s ar­tillery shells and mul­ti­ple rocket launch­ers have been pound­ing the moun­tain­ous ar­eas on the Le­banon-Syria bor­der where the Is­lamic State held po­si­tions, in prepa­ra­tion for the of­fen­sive. Drones could be heard around the clock, and res­i­dents of the eastern Bekaa Val­ley re­ported see­ing army re­in­force­ments ar­riv­ing daily in the north­east­ern dis­trict of Her­mel to join the bat­tle.

The of­fen­sive from the Le­banese side of the bor­der will be car­ried out by the Le­banese army, while Syr­ian troops and Hezbol­lah fight­ers will be work­ing to clear the Syr­ian side of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. Hezbol­lah has been fight­ing along­side As­sad’s forces since 2013.

On Tues­day, the army’s top brass con­ferred with Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun, Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, and in­te­rior and de­fense min­is­ters at the Pres­i­den­tial Palace to plan op­er­a­tions in the Bekaa Val­ley.

The com­mit­tee took the “nec­es­sary coun­sel and de­ci­sions to suc­ceed in the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions to elim­i­nate the ter­ror­ists,” Maj. Gen. Saadal­lah Ha­mad said af­ter the meet­ing.

Ex­perts say more than 3,000 troops, in­clud­ing elite spe­cial forces, are in the north­east­ern cor­ner of Le­banon to take part in the of­fen­sive. The army will likely use weapons it re­ceived from the United States, in­clud­ing Cessna air­craft that dis­charge Hell­fire mis­siles.

Keen to sup­port the army rather than the bet­ter-equipped, Ira­nian-backed Hezbol­lah, the U.S. and Bri­tain have sup­plied the mil­i­tary with he­li­copters, anti-tank mis­siles, ar­tillery and radars, as well as train­ing. The Amer­i­can Em­bassy says the U.S. has pro­vided Le­banon with over $1.4 bil­lion in se­cu­rity as­sis­tance since 2005.

But the fight is not ex­pected to be quick or easy.

Ac­cord­ing to Le­banon’s In­te­rior Min­is­ter Nouhad Mach­nouk, there are about 400 Is­lamic State fight­ers in the Le­banese area, and hun­dreds more on the Syr­ian side of the bor­der.

“It is not go­ing to be a pic­nic,” said Hisham Jaber, a re­tired army gen­eral who heads the Mid­dle East Cen­ter for Stud­ies and Po­lit­i­cal Re­search in Beirut. “The Le­banese army will try to carry out the mis­sion with the least pos­si­ble losses.”

Jaber said the bat­tle may last sev­eral weeks. “It is a rugged area and the [Is­lamic State] is well-armed and ex­pe­ri­enced.”

There are also con­cerns that the of­fen­sive may sub­ject Le­banon to re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks by mil­i­tants just as the coun­try has started to en­joy a re­bound in tourism.

A Le­banese se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said au­thor­i­ties are tak­ing strict se­cu­rity mea­sures to pre­vent any at­tack deep in­side Le­banon by sleeper cells. The of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity in line with reg­u­la­tions, said au­thor­i­ties have de­tained sev­eral Is­lamic State mil­i­tants over the past weeks.

Le­banese politi­cians say the Is­lamic State con­trols an area of about 114 square miles be­tween the two coun­tries, of which 54.5 square miles are in Le­banon.

The area stretches from the bad­lands of the Le­banese town of Ar­sal and Chris­tian vil­lages of Ras Baal­bek and Qaa, to the out­skirts of Syria’s Qalam­oun re­gion and parts of the western Syr­ian town of Qu­sair that Hezbol­lah cap­tured in 2013.

In a tele­vised speech Fri­day, Hezbol­lah leader Sheikh Has­san Nas­ral­lah said that once the Le­banese army launches its of­fen­sive from the Le­banese side, Hezbol­lah and the Syr­ian army will be­gin their at­tack from the Syr­ian side. He added that there has to be co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Syr­ian and Le­banese armies in the bat­tle.

“Open­ing two fronts at the same time will speed up vic­tory and re­duce losses,” Nas­ral­lah said, adding that his fight­ers on the Le­banese side of the bor­der are at the dis­posal of Le­banese troops if needed.

“I tell Daesh that the Le­banese and Syr­i­ans will at­tack you from all sides and you will not be able to re­sist and will be de­feated,” he said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for the ex­trem­ist group.

“If you de­cide to fight, you will end up ei­ther a pris­oner or dead,” Nas­ral­lah added.

Some Le­banese politi­cians have op­posed se­cu­rity co­or­di­na­tion with the Syr­ian army. The Le­banese are sharply di­vided over Syria’s civil war, which has spilled over to the tiny coun­try of 4.5 mil­lion peo­ple. Le­banon is host­ing some 1.2 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees.

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