From Arsal to Tripoli: Lebanon thwarts jihadists, but finale awaits

Bassem Aly, Tuesday 4 Nov 2014

Lebanon's complicated fight against jihadists is not over yet as it continues to deal with the spillover effects of neighbouring conflict

Lebanese army soldiers patrol the Sunni Muslim Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood after being deployed to tighten security, following clashes between Lebanese soldiers and Islamist gunmen, October 27, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Seeking to avoid the same fate of Iraq and neighbouring Syria, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) have pushed back jihadists in the areas of Tripoli and Arsal, but their mission is not yet complete.

Lebanese soldiers and police personnel have been kidnapped since August by militants in Arsal. While in Tripoli – where state control was recently restored – LAF troops are still “hunting down” militants, according to a statement from the army last week.

Possibilities of jihadist expansionism to other areas in Lebanon are also being assessed.

Last week, LAF soldiers took control of the port city of Tripoli following a ferocious three-day battle with militants, a step praised by the United States.

International media outlets have mostly reported that the fighting was the deadliest Syria-connected violence in Lebanon in three years. Destruction was wreaked upon buildings, shops and residences.

Dozens were killed and injured and thousands were forced to leave the city. Lebanese political forces, which continue to fail to select the country's new president, called for national unity to rebuild Tripoli's destroyed areas.


Meanwhile, the militants seem unwilling to surrender. "We warn the Lebanese army against any military escalation targeting Sunnis in Tripoli," AFP quoted Al-Qaeda’s Syria partner, Al-Nusra Front, as saying in a statement.

"We call on it to lift its siege and accept a peaceful solution, or else we will be forced in the coming hours to bring closure to the issue of the soldiers we are holding hostage, given that they are prisoners of war."

Aside from the statement, no militant action has been taken since the military victory.

 The military, under the leadership of military chief general Jean Kahwagi, urged the militants to hand themselves to security forces or face a “hunt down” campaign. According to a report by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Lebanon sent military units to the south last Wednesday to pursue Sunni jihadists who fled Tripoli.

The newspaper estimated the number of escaped jihadists to be 150. The true affiliations of all members of jihadist groups remain unclear, but security sources told Reuters they are linked to the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front, the two groups that control large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes citizens in Tripoli contributed to the success of the military operation. Tabler told Ahram Online that this example was specifically portrayed across the border at Al-Qalamoun, a seaside town that is located 5 km south of Tripoli.

As pressure on state authorities subsides in Tripoli, it increases elsewhere, particularly in Arsal. Three months before the Tripoli battle, Islamist militants withdrew from Arsal in the northeast after clashes with the military.

But withdrawal was accompanied by militants' kidnapping of soldiers, with Al-Nusra shooting one dead and IS beheading two. International news outlets have said that anywhere between 20 and 30 soldiers have been captured.

Militants are seeking an agreement to swap prisoners which will be difficult to reach. The Lebanese government, under the premiership of Tamam Salam, announced its refusal for such a deal and the Syrian regime has adopted a slightly nuanced version of the same position.

An anonymous Syrian minister, who spoke with Lebanon's Al-Nahar newspaper, said Syria "will look into the matter once it receives an official list of names, knowing that the two previous experiences have shown that the terrorists include fake or duplicate names or names of prisoners who had been released under an amnesty or reconciliation."

His statement came two days after Al-Nusra revealed in a statement that it submitted three prisoner-swap suggestions to Ahmed Al-Khatib, a Qatari negotiator of Syrian origins who mediates between the Al-Nusra and Beirut. No agreement has been finalised so far.

Syrian refugees, fleeing the recent fighting in Arsal, wait by trucks in Majdel Anjar in the Bekaa valley, near the Lebanese border with Syria August 8, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, said that both Al-Nusra and IS have "objectives" for their involvement in Lebanon. For Al-Nusra, its attacks on Lebanese territory signifies a retaliation for Shia Hezbollah's support to the Al-Assad regime, and its role in fighting the Sunni groups in Syria and on the Lebanon-Syria borders.

IS, according to Mario, seeks to create a stronghold in Lebanon to "expand and annex" new Lebanese territory in addition to areas they already control. To achieve this goal, they will need to mobilise the Sunni community in Lebanon and among them, Syrian refugees, he argued.

Mario’s assertion is consistent with that of Sahar Atrache, Lebanon analyst with the International Crisis Group, who told Ahram Online last March that a "militia culture has been revived in Lebanon."

“It is uncertain how Lebanon can resist all the shockwaves coming from Syria", Sahar asserted.

The Beirut-based researcher stated that the roots of growing Sunni extremism "go much deeper," and are a consequence of radicalisation of both Sunnis and Shias that started with the Iraq war, but hastened greatly with former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005 and the country's subsequent political crisis.

Last July, countries around the world emphasised commitment to help "the Lebanese government to address the political, economic, and security challenges that it faces" during an International Conference for Lebanon held in Rome.

An arms deal will expectedly be sorted out between France and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, first being unveiled last December. The deal, worth $3 billion, will be financed by Riyadh to provide the Lebanese military with French arms and equipment.

Nevertheless, due to the earlier postponement of the Saudi-French deal, Abou Zeid said that only US and British support helped the Lebanese army to "stop the expansion of the militants" in Arsal and Tripoli and "prevent further spillover of regional conflicts onto Lebanese soil."

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