Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanese army campaign begins

The Lebanese army began military operations to eliminate the Islamic State group from the country this week, while keeping half an eye on the fate of its prisoners, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi


Lebanese army campaign begins
Lebanese army campaign begins

Nearly three years after the Islamic State (IS) group occupied the arid lands in northeast Lebanon, the Lebanese army launched a broad military campaign to expel the group this week and to eliminate it from the region.

Members of the terrorist group have been unexpectedly fleeing, even though the group is known for its brutality.

This campaign is especially important since it comes on the heels of an operation carried out by the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah to expel the Al-Nusra Front, a splinter from Al-Qaeda, from the town of Arsal in northeast Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s operation in a majority Sunni town upset the country’s Sunnis and has embarrassed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri and the Lebanese army. This week’s military campaign against IS confirms the role of the Lebanese army in protecting the country.

The fighting has been mostly concentrated in areas of Qaa, Ras Baalbek and Fakiha, all in northeast Lebanon north of Arsal. On the second day of the fighting on 20 August, the army took control of 80 square km of the 120 square km of land that IS had occupied.

The army now wants to mount new attacks to take control of more positions, with the assistance of heavy firepower from artillery and airplanes. It sent reinforcements to the areas it took after removing landmines and carefully combing through them.

On the first day, the army was able to destroy 11 positions and kill 20 IS members. Lebanese army spokesman Nazih Jreij said orders had been issued to comply with international law by differentiating between civilian and military targets and reducing collateral damage.

Three Lebanese soldiers were killed and four injured in a landmine explosion after two days of battle. Before the fighting began, the US-based Arab news channel Al-Hurra quoted a source as saying that 70 US Special Forces soldiers were in Lebanon to assist Lebanese army operations against IS.

The campaign is supported by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who provided valuable assistance in fighting the IS terrorists thanks to his own extensive military experience. Aoun also visited soldiers who were wounded in the battles.

After Lebanese Army Commander General Joseph Aoun had announced the beginning of Operation Fajr Al-Jurud (Remote Dawn) against IS in Ras Baalbek and Qaa, some IS members and their families began surrendering to the Syrian army at the neighbouring Zamarani checkpoint.

At a news conference on 19 August, spokesman for the Lebanese army Ali Kanso announced the launch of the operation to liberate the Lebanese-Syrian border from IS by destroying their positions and regaining control of Lebanese territories as far as the border with Syria.

Kanso said that the fate of soldiers kidnapped by IS was a priority for the Lebanese army. “IS members have been under siege for more than a year, and their weapons include automatic machine guns,” he said. “They also have anti-armour weapons, rifles, drones, light vehicles and anti-aircraft guns. This is a non-traditional battle.”

He added that there were an estimated 600 IS members in Lebanon.

Kanso said there had been no coordination with Hizbullah or the Syrian army in the campaign. However, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, close to Hizbullah, said that “there is no doubt that the Syrian army and Hizbullah launched operations against IS in tandem, preventing it from defending its positions and quickly making progress in Lebanese territory and even more on the Syrian side.”

The newspaper said that despite coordination between the two armies, personal and political reasons had prevented some Lebanese figures from cooperating because such coordination was still “rooted in foreign agendas” that rejected normal coordination and joint campaigns between both armies.

However, the launch of operations at the same time had underlined the minimal coordination needed to save the lives of soldiers on both sides, tighten the siege on IS members and prevent them from infiltrating the border on either side.

Newspaper editor Ibrahim Al-Amir criticised the Lebanese army’s denial of coordination with Hizbullah and Syria even though US and British military intelligence knew that such coordination existed.

Diplomats and military and security personnel in Lebanon knew the details of the coordination, Al-Amir said. “Army officers, media people and others know that coordination has existed for some time, and there is open communication between the army’s war room and Hizbullah’s and Syria’s operational command.”

Al-Amir said the denial was to appease Western capitals or domestic players. He said the type and scale of this mistake should not be ignored, no matter the necessities of the political and military leadership inside or outside Lebanon.

Despite this debate, the Lebanese army is more concerned about the soldiers taken by IS after the group invaded Arsal in cooperation with the Al-Nusra Front in August 2014. While the prisoners kidnapped by the Al-Nusra Front were released in a prisoner-exchange, there is no information about the prisoners taken by IS, and there are fears they were transported outside Lebanon or even killed.

The Lebanese Al-Mayadeen news channel reported this week that “IS has asked for a ceasefire, but the army has refused unless the fate of the soldiers is revealed.” It seems that negotiating with IS over the kidnapped soldiers is much more difficult than with the Al-Nusra Front, and firepower will be more effective than the words of mediators.

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