Lebanon is bracing for the imminent launch of a second phase of a military campaign to drive several hundred Islamic State (ISIS) militants from their mountain stronghold in north-eastern Lebanon.
The first phase of the campaign saw fighters from the Iran-backed Hezbollah wage a six-day offensive in July against militants from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as al-Nusra Front, al- Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Hezbollah made swift headway against JFS, killing more than 150 of its fighters and corralling the survivors into a narrow pocket near the Lebanese town of Arsal.
The fighting ended with the JFS militants and their families agreeing to leave Lebanon for Idlib in northern Syria.
Hezbollah’s successful military assault was matched by a slick information operations campaign with party-affiliated outlets publishing footage of fighters storming JFS positions and planting flags on captured ramparts. The swift manner in which Hezbollah dispatched JFS has essentially dealt a challenge to the Lebanese Army to see if it is capable of an equally successful outcome against an estimated 400- 500 members of ISIS.
The Lebanese Army has recently been preparing for an assault on ISIS, which occupies an area of approximately 300 sq.km straddling Lebanese and Syrian territories north of the area previously held by JFS. ISIS posts to the east of Qaa and Ras Baalbek villages in the northern Bekaa Valley have been pounded with artillery and struck from the air by missile-firing Cessna aircraft.
This will be the Lebanese Army’s first major combat test since the three-month battle in summer of 2007 to oust an al-Qaeda-inspired group from the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The army eventually triumphed in that struggle but 168 soldiers were killed and most of the camp was destroyed.
Since 2007, the Lebanese Army’s capabilities have greatly increased due to enhanced foreign assistance, particularly from the United States and Great Britain. Lebanese troops have received improved training, new equipment and weapons and several new military units have been raised specifically to guard the border with Syria.
However, the administration of US President Donald Trump is signalling that it intends to slash its 11- year military assistance programme to Lebanon amid accusations that the Lebanese Army colludes with Hezbollah, classified by Washington as a terrorist organisation. The support programme was, in part, an attempt to undermine Hezbollah’s argument that only it has the sufficient military strength to defend Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s offensive against JFS offered particularly ill-timed optics for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was on a visit to Washington to persuade a doubtful Trump administration not to abandon the support programme. Even as Hariri was making his case in Washington, back in Lebanon, it was Hezbollah that was seen defending the country against extremists while the Lebanese Army stood on the sidelines.
Lebanese Army sources said they can wage a successful campaign against ISIS. The army has been deployed in strength west of ISIS lines for nearly three years and uses an array of surveillance systems, such as pilotless reconnaissance drones, Cessna aircraft, observation balloons and fortified watchtowers, to monitor the positions and movements of the militants.
Nevertheless, ISIS, although fewer in number than JFS, may prove a more rugged opponent. Unlike JFS, ISIS has shown no willingness to negotiate a resolution with Lebanon. The group has been holding nine Lebanese soldiers since August 2014, when they were captured in a raid on Arsal. Their fate remains unknown but the fact that ISIS has rejected repeated pleas to negotiate their release suggests that they may no longer be alive.
JFS had the option to move to Idlib but the ISIS fighters have nowhere safe to go. The so-called caliphate of ISIS is crumbling, which essentially means the militants holed up along Lebanon’s north-eastern border have a stark choice of surrendering or dying fighting. While the Lebanese Army should prevail, it could be a bloody struggle.
A second problem is what role Hezbollah intends to play in this second phase. On August 5, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said that his men would fight ISIS on the Syrian side of the border and would be prepared to fight inside Lebanon if requested by the Lebanese Army. Hezbollah mans a string of mountaintop outposts that straddle the border north of the ISIS lines
From a practical perspective, it would be difficult for the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah, and possibly the Syrian Army and Air Force, to fight the same enemy at the same time in the same theatre without tactical coordination. A further complication is the fact that the path of the Lebanon-Syria border is disputed in this area, which increases the risk of incidents in which friendly forces fire on each other by accident.
On the other hand, if the Lebanese Army is seen coordinating with Hezbollah and the Syrian military, it will play into the hands of hardliners in Washington who argue that there is no point in sending good money after bad by continuing the support programme when the recipients are working alongside a terrorist organisation.
This will be an important test for the Lebanese Army. If it concludes a successful campaign against ISIS with minimal casualties, it will counterbalance and, given the general national goodwill for the military in Lebanon, possibly overshadow Hezbollah’s earlier effort as well as bolstering the case for continued international support.
If, however, the battle becomes prolonged and the army takes heavy casualties and Hezbollah is seen openly participating, the prestige of the army will take a hit along with efforts to encourage continued US support.