Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Standoff in Arsal

Fears are mounting that the conflict in the Lebanese border town of Arsal may trigger sectarian violence in the country, reports Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Whenever Sunnis and Shia meet on the battlefield, shockwaves reverberate across the landscape of the entire Middle Eastern region. This is nowhere truer than in Arsal, the Lebanese border town at the epicentre of the current fighting in Lebanon.

‌Arsal is home to 30,000 Lebanese Sunnis and about 70,000 Syrian refugees, making it a possible flashpoint in any future hostilities along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

In recent fighting around the town, the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah claimed to have seized most of the jroud, or arid land, surrounding it.

‌But this only means that the Islamist fighters of Al-Nusra Front are now surrounded, without any offer of safe passage and suggesting that further fighting could be even more ferocious.

‌The confrontation continues to rattle Lebanon’s tenuous stability, pitting sections of the ruling Shia-Sunni-Christian class against each another. Observers now fear that the conflict in Arsal may trigger more widespread sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

‌Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, tried to banish this possibility in a speech on 5 June, promising that his fighters had no plan to attack Arsal. However, the group’s fighters have advanced into the valleys surrounding the town, forcing extremists from Al-Nusra Front to retreat. The group has lost more than 29 fighters since it launched a military offensive alongside the Syrian army against jihadis in the Qalamoun Mountains.

‌Al-Nusra Front is now in an unenviable position. It fighters are hemmed in by Hezbollah on the south, the Syrian army on the east, the Lebanese army on the west, and the Islamic State (IS) group to the north.

‌This leaves the Front’s militants with three choices in terms of military action in the area: either to surrender to Hezbollah and the Syrian army, or to surrender to IS, or to attack the town of Arsal, which is guarded by the Lebanese army.

‌In recent statements, Nasrallah made it clear that removing the Islamist militants from Arsal was not his militia’s responsibility but that of the Lebanese army. The Lebanese government ordered the Lebanese army earlier this month to take “all the measures needed” to restore law and order in Arsal.

‌However, the rhetoric backfired when the Lebanese army, balking at what it felt to be unclear orders, demanded clearer instructions. It informed the cabinet that deploying in Arsal would be a weighty matter calling for a political decision. The human and material cost of such a move, according to an official source speaking on condition of anonymity, would be considerable.

‌The standoff over Arsal illustrates the fragility of Lebanon’s political structure. The Sunni parties and their Christian allies in the Lebanese Forces Party are known to oppose the Syrian regime, which is a close ally of Hezbollah.

‌But the rise of IS and Al-Nusra Front has led all the Lebanese sides to reconsider their positions. Future Current continues to argue that the Lebanese army is the only force that should deploy in Arsal. But without Hezbollah’s help, this task may prove too daunting, and if Hezbollah was given a freehand this might spark off a sectarian conflict that could spill over into other parts of Lebanon.

‌Even the Syrian army, larger and better equipped than the Lebanese, tries to avoid engaging the Sunni militants in battle. It offers air and logistical support to Hezbollah, but leaves the tactical hill-to-hill fighting to the Shia militia.

‌In short, the presence of Sunni extremists on Lebanon’s eastern borders has proved to be a destabilising factor and one that has left the Lebanese army, government and the country’s top Shia fighting force looking for ways to defuse it.

‌Two weeks ago, before it started its recent military campaign, Hezbollah launched a media campaign, declaring that the Lebanese government would be making a “grave mistake” if it allows Sunni extremists to stay in the country.

‌The Shia of the Beqaa Valley, Nasrallah said, will not tolerate the extremists.

Hezbollah’s views are shared by some Lebanese Christians. Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, a key figure in the Free Patriotic Current (FPC), said that the government must take action to purge Arsal of the Sunni militants.

‌Hezbollah’s escalation of the crisis reached an intense point this month when it announced its plans to form a Shia fighting force in the Beqaa Valley that it dubbed the Liwa Al-Qala, or Castle Brigade. The announcement drew sharp criticism from Future Current and its allies.

‌In recent weeks, Hezbollah has been waging a war on the Sunni militants and claims to have expelled them from most of the area surrounding Arsal, including the strategic Rawha Valley. But there are limits to what Hezbollah can do before it antagonises the local Sunni population and their allies.

‌Hezbollah initially said it hoped to force the jihadists out of Arsal before mid-June, but then it backtracked, saying the job was better left for the army.

‌One way out of the mess would be to let Sunni militants, both from Al-Nusra Front and IS, return to Syria. Over the past few weeks, mediators have tried to do just that, but negotiations faltered when the Syrian army rejected the idea and the militants made conditions about the type of weapons they should be allowed to take out of the country.

‌To complicate matters further, Al-Nusra Front and IS are no longer reading from the same book. There are reports of mass graves in the area that Al-Nusra Front withdrew from, suggesting that atrocities were committed by both of the Sunni extremist groups.

‌IS is also said to have stayed out of the fight with Hezbollah while attacking Al-Nusra Front to weaken its resistance, a tactic that was also used by it in earlier confrontations.

‌While avoiding head-on collisions with the Syrian regime or Hezbollah, IS usually tries to attack areas held by the Syrian resistance, while trying to undermine armed resistance groups or buy them out.

‌Hezbollah forces are said to be angered by attempts to confer legitimacy on Al-Nusra Front as a “moderate alternative” to the utterly brutal IS. Hezbollah officials were particularly upset by the accolades the Front received for its role in seizing the town of Shughur Bridge in Idlib from Syrian government forces.

‌Hezbollah has vowed to destroy Al-Nusra Front, while letting IS off the hook for now. When the time comes, Hezbollah strategists hope the Shia militia will be able to take on IS with the help of the Lebanese army and other armed groups in the country.

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