Nusra routed, Army gears up for bat­tle against Daesh

Mil­i­tants, fam­i­lies pre­pare to re­turn to Idlib af­ter sur­ren­der deal halts fight­ing

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Haboush and James Haines-Young

BEIRUT: Le­banon will turn the page on the armed pres­ence of mil­i­tants for­merly af­fil­i­ated with Al-Qaeda in the next few days, while the Lebanese Army pre­pares for a pos­si­ble bat­tle to evict another mil­i­tant group, Daesh (ISIS), from the coun­try.

Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham, for­merly known as Nusra Front, fi­nally raised the white flag af­ter five days of fierce fight­ing with Hezbol­lah in the out­skirts of Ar­sal, agree­ing to a cease-fire that went into ef­fect Thurs­day to pave the way for its re­treat into Syria.

With the de­tails of Fatah al-Sham’s with­drawal still be­ing worked out, the spot­light is set to shift to a bor­der en­clave con­trolled by few hun­dred Daesh mil­i­tants, the last re­main­ing ves­tige of ter­ror­ism threat­en­ing Le­banon’s bor­der se­cu­rity. The Army has sent troops to ar­eas bor­der­ing Daesh-con­trolled regions ad­ja­cent to the towns of Al-Qaa and Ras Baal­beck, from where it will be poised to as­sault Daesh’s po­si­tions if an on­go­ing me­di­a­tion ef­fort to al­low them to leave in re­turn for clear in­for­ma­tion on kid­napped ser­vice­men fails.

Any all-out of­fen­sive against Daesh would be launched to de­fend Le­banon, but also to avenge ter­ror­ist

at­tacks car­ried out by Daesh, which have of­ten tar­geted the Army.

A se­cu­rity source told The Daily Star that Gen­eral Se­cu­rity chief Ab­bas Ibrahim held talks in prepa­ra­tion for the deal that would al­low Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham fight­ers safe pas­sage to Syria, along with their fam­i­lies.

The cease-fire went into ef­fect at 6 a.m. Thurs­day morn­ing and had only been agreed on the night be­fore.

Ac­cord­ing to a se­cu­rity source, the cease-fire agree­ment in­cluded re­turn of five cap­tured Hezbol­lah fight­ers to Le­banon, the dis­man­tling of the Wadi Hmayyed Syr­ian refugee en­camp­ment and its han­dover to the Army, in ad­di­tion to the trans­port of Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham fight­ers and their fam­i­lies to the north­ern Syr­ian province of Idlib.

Af­ter meet­ing with Speaker Nabih Berri upon his re­turn from Syria Thurs­day, Ibrahim said that the cease-fire was hold­ing. “The re­turn of mil­i­tants and [civil­ians] who wish to go back to Syria’s Idlib will take place un­der the sur­veil­lance of the Lebanese au­thor­i­ties, and the lo­gis­tics will be over­seen by the Lebanese Red Cross,” Ibrahim said. “This is a vic­tory for Le­banon and the Lebanese.”

Ibrahim also met with Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun and briefed him on the lat­est se­cu­rity de­vel­op­ments on the Lebanese-Syr­ian bor­der.

Separately, Ibrahim met Army Com­man­der Gen. Joseph Aoun. The two dis­cussed the on­go­ing se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.

The Hezbol­lah-run War Me­dia Cen­ter re­ported that Hezbol­lah fight­ers en­tered Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham’s largest op­er­a­tions rooms. Sol­diers ab­ducted in 2014 by the then-Nusra Front and Daesh are be­lieved to have been held in that very same com­pound.

Ar­sal was briefly over­run by the mil­i­tants in 2014, re­sult­ing in the cap­ture of some 30 se­cu­rity ser­vice­men. Al­though most of the hostages have been re­leased, the fate of nine Army sol­diers re­mains un­known.

The WMC re­ported Hezbol­lah fight­ers had un­cov­ered a mass grave of Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham fight­ers who had died in clashes on the out­skirts of Ar­sal.

The Army seized po­si­tions near the towns of Ras Baal­beck and Al-Qaa, where troops are ex­pected to im­mi­nently launch at­tacks against Daesh, a se­cu­rity source told The Daily Star.

If the fate of the miss­ing sol­diers is not dis­cov­ered, “the Army will raid the Daesh posts and ini­ti­ate an all-out bat­tle,” the source added.

The Army is also re­in­forc­ing po­si­tions around Al-Qaa to pre­vent in­cur­sions by mil­i­tants fur­ther into Le­banon.

“God will­ing, what we want is an end to what is hap­pen­ing in Ar­sal,” Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri told re­porters from Wash­ing­ton, where he is on an of­fi­cial visit. “I don’t think any­one from the Lebanese govern­ment wants there to be this type of ter­ror­ism in the out­skirts of Ar­sal. The best course [of ac­tion] is for them to re­turn to their coun­try.”

Fol­low­ing a meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Aoun, In­te­rior Min­is­ter Nouhad Mach­nouk re­fused to go into de­tails about the de­vel­op­ments hap­pen­ing in Ar­sal, stress­ing that be­cause the Syr­ian-Lebanese bor­der is not de­mar­cated, the is­sue can­not be de­lib­er­ated. “This is dis­puted land, and each po­lit­i­cal side has an opin­ion of it,” he said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence. “All what we are say­ing is that the Army does not need a Cabi­net de­ci­sion, as the Army is con­stantly on as­sign­ment, what is hap­pen­ing in the hills of Ar­sal is go­ing on in dis­puted land and we can­not dis­cuss it.”

Fu­ture Move­ment Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ah­mad Hariri toured Ar­sal, rep­re­sent­ing the pre­mier. “We came to con­firm to Ar­sal that it is not alone,” he said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence from the area. “Ar­sal is the base of our re­silience and mes­sage of na­tion­al­ism and mod­er­a­tion.”

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