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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

Lebanon army says it hit back at ISIL positions after extremists fired artillery that landed in town

The army has meanwhile denied requesting US air support ahead of a large-scale campaign to dislodge the militant group from position held in northern Lebanon since 2014

In this photo from June 19, 2016, a Lebanese soldier takes his position overlooking an area controlled by ISIL on the edge of the town of Arsal in north-east Lebanon. Hussein Malla, File / AP
In this photo from June 19, 2016, a Lebanese soldier takes his position overlooking an area controlled by ISIL on the edge of the town of Arsal in north-east Lebanon. Hussein Malla, File / AP

The Lebanese army says it hit back at ISIL positions in northern Lebanon after the extremists fired artillery that landed on the outskirts of the northern town of Qaa.

The army has been shelling ISIL positions in the area for weeks in anticipation of a military campaign to dislodge the group from positions it has held there since 2014. It said on Monday this week it had hit back after the extremists fired near to Qaa.

While one local news outlet reported the Lebanese armed forces had requested US air support for its offensive, a Lebanese military source refuted those claims on Tuesday. The presence of US special forces in Lebanon received renewed attention this week after a report on Al Hurra, a US-based Arabic television station.

"I can confirm the presence of US special forces in Lebanon," said Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon said. "Our special forces are providing training and support to the Lebanese armed forces. That not only concentrates on operational type missions, but also tactical and strategic type missions. We also have a presence with Lebanese special forces in all aspects of training and special operations."

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The presence of US forces in Lebanon, however, is not new, and does not mean they would be on the ground in an operation against ISIL.

“Their role has always been a training and support role, and it goes back about a half decade,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

Whenever it takes place, the military campaign against ISIL will be a test for the Lebanese armed forces, which have not carried out a major combat operation since 2007. The last one was against militants who had taken refuge in Nahr Al Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. It lasted more than four months, killed more than 168 Lebanese soldiers and more than 200 militants, almost completely destroyed the camp and displaced around 30,000 people.

The campaign against ISIL is not expected to be speedy, unlike Hizbollah’s recent operation against Al Qaeda-linked militants who held positions not far from ISIL’s.

The terrain is “incredibly inhospitable, and they’re going to be doing it without large-scale air cover”, Mr Nerguizian said. But, “at the end of the day, Lebanon is a member of the counter-ISIL coalition, and it hasn’t asked for tactical help".

Hizbollah’s offensive last month against al-Qaida's former Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, lasted about a week and ended with a negotiated settlement between the two sides that allowed militants to withdraw to Syria with their families.

"With Fatah Al Sham, you’re fighting a beaten enemy that knows it’s the endgame,” Mr Nerguizian said. “ISIL doesn’t have an exit plan, and they’re not really demographically Syrian.”

Hizbollah has declared it will fight ISIL from the Syrian side of the Lebanese-Syrian border, and is ready to assist the army on the Lebanese side of the border as well.

The proximity of the Lebanese military to Hizbollah has raised concerns as some American politicians argue that arms supplied by the United States could end up being used by the Shiite militants against Israel. The US department of defence has sought to assure them that is not the case, however. Meanwhile, a US embassy official in Beirut reaffirmed to The National the US’s stance on Hizbollah’s role.

“The United States has serious concerns about a military operation undertaken inside Lebanon that was not conducted by the Lebanese armed forces, the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon," the official said.

The American presence in Lebanon also received attention in April, when thousands of Syrian refugees living near Riyaq airbase in the east of the country were forced to move from the area to provide a wider security perimeter after the US military increased its use of the base - most likely to provide faster resupply of ammunition to the Lebanese army in northeastern Lebanon.

US special forces have also had a presence at the Hamat military base near Batroun, on the coast of Lebanon. That base is home to the Lebanese special forces training facility.

On Monday, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, also addressed Hizbollah’s role in Lebanon by calling for “improvements” to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), which monitors southern Lebanon and the country’s cease-fire with Israel. Unifil’s mandate is up for renewal later this month and Ms Haley said more attention needed to be paid to the "illegal presence of armed personnel, weapons, and infrastructure inside Unifil’s area of operations".

“These arms — which are almost entirely in the hands of Hizbollah terrorists — threaten the security and stability of the region,” Ms Haley said. “Unifil must increase its capacity and commitment to investigating and reporting these violations.”