Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 March 2018

Lebanon's Hizbollah and Syrian troops attack extremist militants in border area

Syrian refugees flee offensive near Lebanese town of Arsal 

Lebanese soldiers patrol a street in Labwe, at the entrance of the town of Arsal on the border with Syria, on July 21, 2017. Ali Hashisho / Reuters
Lebanese soldiers patrol a street in Labwe, at the entrance of the town of Arsal on the border with Syria, on July 21, 2017. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah and the Syrian army began a ground offensive on Friday aimed at driving out the last remaining pockets of ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra fighters from Lebanon’s border with Syria.

ISIL and Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s former Syria branch, have had a presence near the Lebanese border town of Arsal for several years and briefly captured the town in 2014 in a rare joint operation.

Since then, however, the extremists have faced frequent artillery bombardment from the Lebanese army, which, with the help of international assistance, has strengthened its presence on the border.

But until now there has been no major attempt to drive the extremists — estimated to number in the hundreds — from the border region.

After just hours of fighting, Damascus ally Hizbollah was reporting advances against the militants. Video footage aired by Hizbollah’s media outlets showed the Shiite group’s mobile artillery units pounding away at the barren mountains surrounding Arsal and tanks displaying the Syrian government flag advancing into battle.

Local media reported on attempts to negotiate a withdrawal of Jabhat Al Nusra fighters ahead of the battle, but that effort failed.

Hizbollah's Al Manar TV station said 17 Al Nusra fighters had been killed as fighting continued into the evening and its forces continued to advance. The Daily Star reported 18 Al Nusra fighters killed along with five Hizbollah fighters.

The Lebanese government had initially said it would take the lead in the fight to drive militants from the countryside around Arsal. But on Friday the army appeared to be relegated to a support role, only firing on militants who attempted to flee in the direction of the town, according to the state-run National News Agency.

The agency said the army was allowing Syrian refugees outside of Arsal to enter the town to escape the fighting.

Both ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra have carried out deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon since 2013, with many of those attacks targeting Shiite-majority areas of the country where Hizbollah is popular.

Despite being adversaries and at war elsewhere in Syria at the time, the two extremist groups came together to capture Arsal in August 2014, holding the town for several days before being driven out by the Lebanese army. While they were forced to retreat, the groups took more than 30 Lebanese soldiers and policemen as hostages and later executed some.

Finally clearing the extremists from Lebanon’s border will be welcomed in the country, but the battle and how it is fought has the potential to exacerbate tensions.

Opponents of Hizbollah and Damascus have already questioned why the Shiite militia and Syrian army are fighting the battle instead of Lebanon’s army. And any apparent direct coordination between the Lebanese army and the forces of Hizbollah and the Syrian government could further anger anti-Syrian Lebanese.

The fighting near Arsal also comes as the Lebanese army faces allegations of torturing refugees arrested after soldiers were attacked by a string of suicide bombers in the town on June 30. Four of the 356 the refugees detained died in military custody. The army said pre-existing conditions were to blame, but Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that there was evidence from photographs and witnesses that supported allegations that detainees had been tortured.

Any sustained Hizbollah presence in the Sunni-majority area could also cause problems. Many of the town’s residents are wary of Hizbollah’s powerful position in Lebanon and were quick to support Syria’s rebels. The Free Syrian Army flag was a common sight in Arsal when opposition fighters still operated along the border earlier in Syria's civil war.

* with additional reporting from Reuters