Nicholas Blanford

Hezbollah readies for offensive near Arsal

Recent moves by the group point to an imminent military campaign against jihadis along the Lebanese-Syrian border

Two Hezbollah fighters patrol a hill on the Lebanese side of the Qalamoun mountains on the border with Syria on May 20, 2015. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

Hezbollah fighters may have begun a long-anticipated offensive against the extremist Islamic State in northeast Lebanon with the apparent goal of driving the militants from Lebanese soil once and for all.


On Monday morning, Al-Manar television reported that an ISIS bunker had been destroyed in an area called Zwaytini near Ras Baalbek, killing a number of armed men. More casualties were reportedly inflicted by Hezbollah against ISIS reinforcements heading to the bunker.


This would not be the first time that Hezbollah has attacked ISIS positions in the mountains east of Qaa and Ras Baalbek. But the significance of the timing is that it came a day after forces loyal to the Syrian government drove ISIS from much of Qaryatayn, a town in Syria’s Homs province midway between Damascus and Palmyra.


Last week, a Hezbollah unit commander told NOW that the party was mobilizing for an offensive against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, in the Arsal-Ras Baalbek area and that it would likely begin once the battle for Qaryatayn was over.

Sources close to Hezbollah in Ras Baalbek said on Monday that the attack on the ISIS bunker was "just the beginning", with expectations that the situation on the ground will escalate in the coming days.


Also Monday, in comments that could presage the expected offensive, Mohammed Raad, head of Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, said that recent “takfiri” defeats in the Homs province (referring to Palmyra and Qaryatayn) had left the militants in northeast Lebanon isolated, making a move against them timely.


“Why don’t we take a national sovereign decision to rescue Arsal from the threat of these takfiri terrorists?” he asked.


Since the Hezbollah-led Qalamoun II offensive fizzled out last summer, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS militants have been bottled up in mountains east of Ras Baalbek and Arsal. The militants also have de facto control over Arsal itself; the Lebanese army man positions ringing Arsal but are not deployed inside the town itself.


Hezbollah mans a string of mountain-top outposts that straddle the border with Syria east of Qaa and are about two kilometres to the north of the nearest ISIS positions. Similarly, Hezbollah is deployed in a line about five kilometers south of Arsal to protect Shiite-populated villages such as Nahle and Younine from advances by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is deployed nearby.


The Lebanese army controls the western perimeter of this area, effectively sealing off populated regions of the northern Bekaa from attempted penetrations by the Sunni jihadists.


Since January, the uneasy tacit alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in the Ras Baalbek/Arsal area has broken down, with both sides battling each other for control of crucial terrain along the border. Jabhat al-Nusra was generally thought to have been the larger and more powerful of the two groups in the Arsal area, with an estimated 700 fighters compared to ISIS’s 600. However, recent indications suggest that ISIS is now larger than Jabhat al-Nusra (the Hezbollah commander claimed that the former fields some 1,000 fighters compared to only 250 for the latter). If the figures are correct, it would support information from Arsal and elsewhere that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have been defecting to ISIS in recent months.


Lately, some 1,500 Hezbollah fighters have moved into the area around Jarajir on the Syrian side of the border opposite Arsal in preparation for an offensive against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The weapons they are bringing with them include 57mm and ZSU 4x23mm anti-aircraft guns used in an infantry support role and mounted on the back of modified trucks which can be raised off the ground using stabilizers when firing.


“In the mountains, it’s the battle of the heavy weapons. We are firing at long distances rather than close combat like in Qusayr,” the Hezbollah commander said, referring to the town near Homs, scene of a 17-day battle in May-June 2013 in which he participated.


Hezbollah is also sending to the Qalamoun front truck-mounted multi-barrelled 107mm rocket launchers. The rockets have a range of around 12 kilometers, but Hezbollah is using them in a short-range direct-fire role over distances of as little as 400 meters. While not the most accurate of rocket systems, a barrage from a 12- or 24-barrelled 107mm launcher can have a devastating effect on militant positions when employed at such short range.


It is too early to say with certainty that Monday’s attack on ISIS near Ras Baalbek signals the beginning of the offensive. But if Hezbollah does press ahead in the coming weeks with a campaign to drive the militants out of Lebanon, it will have significant repercussions for stability in Arsal and for the future deployment of the Lebanese army in the area.


Arsal has been beyond the effective control of the Lebanese state since August 2014 when a combined force of 700 militants, mainly from Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, overran the town triggering five days fierce fighting with the army. Although a ceasefire deal allowed the militants to slip back to their mountain redoubts, the Lebanese government has been unable to reassert control over the town. Instead, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, along with criminal gangs, are the dominant forces in Arsal, instituting a reign of terror over most of the inhabitants.


If Hezbollah drives ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra from their positions in the mountainous rural areas outside Ras Baalbek and Arsal back across the border, any surviving militants holed up in Arsal will be surrounded and cut off. Neither Hezbollah nor the army envisage a move to storm Arsal would be politically unacceptable, as it would likely cause huge numbers of civilian and troop casualties, could take weeks to accomplish and would probably leave the town in ruins. Instead, the isolation of the militants could pave the way for a negotiated solution in which they are permitted to leave Lebanon peacefully, allowing the state to resume control over Arsal.


If the Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS militants are driven out of Lebanon, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will begin constructing mountain-top outposts along this stretch of the border as they have done further south in areas backing onto Shiite-populated villages in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Arsal’s Sunni demographics, staunch support for Syrian rebels and hostility toward Hezbollah would make such a step politically confrontational, especially amid recent, and inaccurate, accusations from some Future Movement officials that Hezbollah is “occupying” Arsal.


Therefore, the Lebanese army would have to fill the vacuum with new fortified observation posts and checkpoints to prevent the possibility of the Sunni jihadists slipping back into Lebanon at a later date. A deployment closer to a border that has never been demarcated on the ground and the path of which in the Arsal area is disputed by local Lebanese and Syrian farmers would bring its own logistical complications. Nevertheless, the Lebanese army, with support from the UK and US, has proven its capabilities in building and holding new and stronger lines of defense between Qaa and Arsal over the past year and a half. Last week, British Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond visited Lebanon to announce a £19.8 million ($28.3 million) grant for training Lebanese troops, underlining continued international backing for Lebanon’s efforts to secure the border against ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups.



Nicholas Blanford is Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Two Hezbollah fighters patrol a hill on the Lebanese side of the Qalamoun mountains on the border with Syria on May 20, 2015. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

Some 1,500 Hezbollah fighters have moved into the area around Jarajir on the Syrian side of the border opposite Arsal in preparation for an offensive against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.