Lebanon army declares pause in offensive against ISIL
The fate of nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by the extremist group remains unknown
The Lebanese military announced on Sunday a ceasefire in its battle against ISIL along the north-east border with Syria to allow for negotiations on nine soldiers held hostage by the extremists. It came as the Syrian government said it had reached a surrender deal with ISIL fighters on its side of the border.
“A ceasefire came into effect today at 7am [local time], and that is to make way for the last phase of negotiations on the fate of the kidnapped soldiers,” a statement from the Lebanese military said.
An army spokesman told The National that eight bodies had been recovered from territory retaken from ISIL and were being examined to see if they were any of the missing soldiers.
News of a pause in fighting on the Lebanese side of the border came as Hizbollah announced a ceasefire with ISIL on the Syrian side, in the western Qalamoun region. The Lebanese militant group launched an offensive against the extremists alongside Syrian government forces on August 19, the same day the Lebanese military launched its own operation against ISIL.
The Lebanese army maintains it is not co-ordinating with Hizbollah or the Syrian army, despite the timing of the two offensives.
But on Sunday, the Lebanese government was likely to be under increased pressure to co-ordinate with Damascus as Syrian state media announced that Hizbollah and the Syrian government had reached a deal with ISIL fighters inside Syria. The deal allows the extremists to surrender and be transferred to ISIL-held parts of eastern Syria.
Hizbollah media outlets broadcast footage from the Syrian side of the border showing ISIL fighters surrendering to the Lebanese group.
The Lebanese army had previously said there would be no negotiations with ISIL, though Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah suggested in a speech last week that his group might engage in talks with the extremists.
Hizbollah, which has been fighting in Syria’s civil war on behalf of president Bashar Al Assad’s government since 2012, has used its offensive against ISIL as a tool to pressure Lebanese leaders to recognise the legitimacy of the Syrian government. The Lebanese government adopted an official policy of neutrality when the Syrian civil war began six years ago, but a visit by three Lebanese ministers to Damascus earlier this month pointed to a thawing of relations — though it drew condemnation from other Lebanese politicians.
During that visit, Mr Nasrallah said in his speech last week, Damascus stressed that if the Lebanese government wanted to coordinate with it on reaching a deal with ISIL then it "must submit a formal and open request to the Syrian authorities" - something that would force Beirut to recognise Mr Al Assad's legitimacy.
At least six soldiers and reportedly dozens of ISIL militants have been killed in the Lebanese offensive against the extremist group, dubbed by the army "Dawn of the Barrens".
The army had reported slow progress in recent days as it dismantled bombs left behind by ISIL fighters as they retreated.
The fate of nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by ISIL in August 2014 during an attack on Lebanese security forces in the northeastern border town of Arsal remains unknown.
ISIL kidnapped 30 soldiers and policemen, of whom four were killed and one died of his wounds. In December 2015, 16 hostages were released as part of a prisoner swap, while nine were still held by ISIL.
Families of the missing soldiers and dozens of media outlets waited near the parliament in Beirut on Sunday after Lebanese General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim announced that the issue would be resolved by the end of the day. By late afternoon, however, there was still no word.
Sixty-two Lebanese soldiers have been killed by ISIL or Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate in and around Arsal since 2013, the Lebanese army spokesman said.
The Lebanese army offensive against ISIL has been working to drive the group out of its last border footholds in the areas of Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud Al Qaa. The army said on Sunday that ground under ISIL control had shrunk from more than 100 square kilometres to about 20 kilometres since fighting began.
Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Middle East at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the extremists appeared to be trying to escape by pretending to be civilians.
“Some ISIL fighters appear to be shaving their beards and trying to melt away, either by trying to make it to Arsal (where there is a refugee population they could hide among) on foot or in a bid to make it to Syria via dozens of unmarked pathways,” he said.
In Qaa, one of the towns closest to the offensive, a member of the local council said residents were happy the military campaign appeared to be moving closer to an end, but that people remained wary of attacks by ISIL fighters.
“We heard about some Syrians that escape from Lebanon to Syria and then they will enter Lebanon again after shaving their beards,” said Basheer Matar.
ISIL also threatened to overrun Ras Baalbek and Qaa in 2014, and claimed responsibility for striking Qaa with a series of bombings last year that killed five people.
Last month, a Hizbollah offensive inside Lebanon against former Al Qaeda-affiliated militants resulted in negotiations that saw around 10,000 fighters and refugees return to Syria from the Arsal area. That deal required the Lebanese government to work with the Syrian government, with Mr Ibrahim, the head of Lebanese general security, helping to oversee it.
The deal was also a departure from previous Lebanese government policy toward Syrian refugees, which had held that returns to Syria would only be facilitated by Beirut if they were approved by the United Nations.
There are around 10,000 Syrian refugees living in Qaa, and Mr Matar said he hoped they would also return soon.
“That is the job of the Lebanese government,” Mr Matar said. “We hope they all return to Syria.”
Updated: August 27, 2017 10:23 PM