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Rabih Haddad

ISIS and Nusra will turn Bekaa into a theater of jihad

Nobody knows yet what ISIS’s plans are

Lebanese military experts dismantle an explosive-rigged car coming from the Syrian region of Qalamoun after it was seized by the LAF near to the Syrian border on 16 February 2014 (AFP/STR)

The old division of Qalamoun has fallen, giving rise to a new power balance and imposing new variables on the battlefield. The new division is one of height, not width; instead of western and eastern Qalamoun, the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra now occupy northern and southern Qalamoun respectively. This clearly means that expansion will include Lebanese territory. ISIS’s aspirations in that respect are well-known, but the matter appears to be a new development for Jabhat al-Nusra — part of the duel between the Islamist group and its juristic and sharia law rival. It had previously clung to the theory that “Lebanon is a land for Nusra [giving support], not waging jihad.”

 

The two militant groups are no longer expanding eastward and westward inside Syria alone, or towards the governorates of Daraa and Homs. Lebanese territory has become the object of their aspirations: the area between Arsal, Ras Baalbek, Qaa and Al-Fakiha is part of northern Qalamoun, which ISIS controls. The mountainous area around the towns of Britel, Younine and Nahle is part of southern Qalamoun, which Jabhat al-Nusra controls. This simplified division of the area can help us reach an understanding of what happened in Ras Baalbek recently. It also clarifies what happened in the mountainous area outside Britel — at the advanced Ain al-Saa position in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, to be precise. The position overlooks the Syrian town of Zabadani and is used by Hezbollah to secure the Britel-Tfeil road, thus facilitating transfer of arms and troops into the heart of Qalamoun. When the news emerged, the party denied that any attack had taken place.

 

Meanwhile, ISIS has taken near-complete control of Qalamoun’s mountainous areas. Most Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades have pledged allegiance to the group — even the Islamist brigades — and Nusra’s presence has receded. Sources from Qalamoun told Al-Modon: “Practically speaking, Nusra is losing ground and its influence is shrinking. Also, some forces allied with [the group] or some of its teams are pledging allegiance to ISIS. Recently, [Nusra] has seemed semi-absent if not completely absent: its leadership is no longer issuing statements or taking stances, and has kept quiet for a time to develop its position on the advance of the ISIS hordes. However, this absence, justified as limiting losses and preserving a remaining presence, has gone on for a long time.”

 

Nusra’s absence doesn’t mean the group is not competing with ISIS in its military operations; two days after the attack on Ras Baalbek, Nusra launched an operation against the Ain al-Saa position. Al-Modon’s source says that the attack was a response from Jabhat al-Nusra to ISIS’s attack on the Tallet al-Hamra position. “There is competition between the two sides over who can take the initiative militarily against the adversary,” the source said.

 

As soon as news emerged about Nusra’s attack outside Britel, Hezbollah denied the incident. The denial is a first for the party, which never used to take any position on this kind of news whether true or not. However, a source from Britel confirmed to Al-Modon that an attack had been launched but that Hezbollah had managed to detect it early on. This prompted Nusra’s fighters to stop their advance towards the position. As to why Hezbollah denied the attack, the source says that because the operation did not affect the position, it was in the party’s interests to issue a denial. This way, areas where its supporters live would not feel they are constantly at risk, which would be at odds with the party’s propaganda line that it claimed victory in Qalamoun and is protecting Lebanese border towns.

 

As Lebanon sinks further and further in to this conflict, officials are confirming that everything is fine. The fear is that the conflict may develop to the point where it suddenly bursts into new areas. The recent attack on the Lebanese Army base at Tallet al-Hamra is an indication of what such a development will bring. Well-informed sources told Al-Modon that ISIS is waiting for the weather to change so it can start a wide-ranging mission in the area. This makes sense in view of the group’s decline in Iraq and its attempts to compensate by opening new fronts. These developments and other information from the field suggest that the coming days will bring an increase in military operations launched from Qalamoun and played out on Lebanese soil.

 

ISIS, which it seems really does want to expand further, has set up a sharia court in the Wadi Hmeid area outside of Arsal. This move shows that the group wants to lay out the borders of its province in Qalamoun. Nobody knows yet what ISIS’s plans are, where they will begin or where they will end.

 

This article was originally published by Al-Modon and has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope.

ISIS and the Nusra Front now occupy northern and southern Qalamoun respectively. (AFP/STR)

As Lebanon sinks further and further in to this conflict, officials are confirming that everything is fine. The fear is that the conflict may develop to the point where it suddenly bursts into new areas."