Where does Hizballah's recapture of Arsal leave Lebanese army?

Who will lead Lebanon's fight against extremists: Hizballah or the army?
4 min read
27 Jul, 2017
Comment: After its Arsal victory, Hizballah's war against jihadis provides it with a fresh justification for clinging to its military arsenal, writes Mona Alami.
A Hizballah soldier guides a tour of the mountains near Arsal [AFP]
In a speech yesterday, Hizballah's General Secretary, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah announced a swift victory against the Nusra Front (also known as Hayat Tahrir Sham) in Arsal, an area located on the border with Syria. 

Hizballah's military operation dovetailed with a major media campaign, and constitutes a moral success for the organisation, confirming its military narrative in Syria, where the group says it is fighting "takfiris". 

Yet the bulk of the battle remains in capturing Islamic State's (IS) territory in the Arsal Mountainous area, and it is still unclear whether Hizballah or the Lebanese army will be leading this difficult fight.

A week has passed since the launch last Friday of a military operation against Jabhat Nusra in Arsal's mountainous area, which resulted in the death of over 20 Hizballah fighters and 140 militants. Since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Arsal has fallen outside the control of the Lebanese state and was stormed by 700 militants from IS and Jabhat Nusra in 2014.  

With the campaign ending yesterday, Nasrallah said: "the mujahideen have achieved a major victory with the least possible casualties".

The town has been a security nightmare for the Lebanese state and for Hizballah as it was used as a conduit to funnel weapons and explosives in and out of the border area.  Several people were arrested in Arsal after they were linked to the smuggling of explosive laden vehicles into Lebanon, with many targeting Hizballah's bastions. 

The town has been a security nightmare for the Lebanese state and for Hizballah as it was used as a conduit to funnel weapons and explosives

The last security breach took place on 30 June, when five suicide bombers set off explosives during an army raid on two refugee camps on the outskirts of Arsal.

Hizballah coupled its rapid gain in Arsal with a massive media campaign launched by the organisation's media war arm. Pictures of Hizballah militants pursuing jihadists in the rugged mountains were shown continuously on the organization's al-Manar TV. 

The ceasefire was agreed a week after Hizballah launched an offensive
against the extremists [Getty]

The fighters were carrying a flag with pictures of four Lebanese servicemen who were killed at the hands the Nusra front and IS after 30 of them were kidnapped in 2014. "The Arsal campaign falls within the organisational narrative justifying its war in Syria," highlighted anti-Hizballah activist and journalist, Ali Amine.

Read more: Hizballah and rebels agree to ceasefire on Lebanese-Syrian border

In a speech in March 2014, Nasrallah warned of the threat posed to Lebanon by Islamist fighters in the Syrian conflict. "If takfiris achieve victory in Syria, we would all be eliminated in Lebanon, not just the resistance," he said at the time. 

Hizballah's successful operation in Arsal has appealed not only to its traditional popular base but the organisation's opponents within the Christian community. Lebanese Forces Chief, Samir Geagea - a staunch enemy of Hizballah - said in a statement this week that the military operation will protect villages [in the region] and put them at ease".

Hizballah's latest success is likely to once again postpone the issue of the group's demilitarisation

Hizballah's latest success is likely to once again postpone the issue of the group's demilitarisation, a question that has divided Lebanon since 2000, and the end of the Israeli occupation, against which the organisation fought. The war on the jihadists provides a Hizballah with a fresh justification for clinging to its military arsenal.   

In the hills of Arsal, the Lebanese Army are reinforcing their positions around towns of Ras Baalbeck and al-Qaa, located close to IS territory. It remains unclear whether Hizballah will be leading military operations against IS, or if it will leave this responsibility to the Lebanese army. 

After all, the terrorist group occupies a larger portion of territory than Jabhat Nusra, and its fighters pose a greater threat, which would make a swift win more difficult to achieve for Hizballah.

The Lebanese army is also wary of possible infiltration by IS into refugee camps and from there to Syrian refugee agglomerations. Besides facing extremely difficult economic conditions with 70 percent of Syrians in Lebanon living below the poverty line, increasing tensions between Lebanese and Syrians, make the Syrian population vulnerable to the lure of radical organisations. 

"It is becoming more and more difficult to manage Lebanese-Syrian relations, this is worrisome," says a security source on condition of anonymity. The multiplication of discrimination cases and hate crimes targeting Syrian refugees in Lebanon will only add to their feeling of disenfranchisement.

Winning over Arsal from both Jabhat Nusra and IS is essential to maintaining Lebanon's stability, but the town represents a smaller danger compared to the internal threat posed by disenfranchised Syrian refugees, that no one appears to be willing to tackle.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. 

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.