Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Out of Arsal

Lebanon heaved a collective sigh of relief following the withdrawal of ISIS fighters, writes Hassan al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

What the Lebanese army has just proved in Arsal is the reassuring fact that the Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS, is not as invincible as some have made it out to be.

ISIS was defeated in Arsal, a comforting development for the Lebanese who had earlier thought that the brutal exploits of this extremist organisation were confined to Syria and Iraq where the group had declared a dubious caliphate and terrorised thousands of civilians.

Arsal is one of the largest towns in Lebanon. Although inhabited by only 35,000 people, Arsal and its neighbouring villages make up five per cent of the country’s area, explaining the horror the Lebanese felt when ISIS began moving into the district.

Rallying behind the country’s army commanded by Jean Qahwaji, the Lebanese waited impatiently for news of military operations against ISIS and rejoiced when these ended in the withdrawal of most of the extremists from Arsal.

When ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front took control of Arsal a few weeks ago, Qahwaji said that the danger to the country was greater than what many had expected.

But within days of the campaign against the groups the Lebanese army had the upper hand and the Lebanese heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Yet, many are still wondering whether the ISIS threat is completely over.

One reason ISIS lost in Arsal is that the army carried out a textbook operation, cutting off its supply lines, bombing its positions, and repulsing its attacks. Another reason is that the combatants often quarreled among themselves, despite their tactical alliances.

The disputes between the ISIS, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, and the Al-Nusra Front, a franchise of the same organisation, are not about tactics on the battlefield alone, but also about the goals of the fighting.

ISIS is intent on annexing territories to its self-declared caliphate, while the Al-Nusra Front has repeatedly said that all it wants is to bring down the Syrian regime.

Unlike ISIS, the Front has made alliances with various anti-regime groups, including some from outside the Islamist current. ISIS has often been too focused on its all-or-nothing tactics to make such deals.

The Al-Nusra leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, has generally shunned the brutal tactics for which ISIS has gained notoriety. His position is that once the Damascus regime has been ousted, the Front will not seek to rule Syria alone.

As a result, Christian politician Michel Kilo says that the Al-Nusra Front is quite different from ISIS.

The latter is viewed as reckless even by the followers of Al-Qaeda. It cut its teeth in Iraq, and its extremist ideology was honed by the abuses of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the excesses of the US occupation, the sectarianism of former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the temptations of the current power vacuum in the country. 

ISIS is also rich. Its exploits in Iraq and Syria have brought it military hardware, plenty of cash, and an aura of invincibility that have made fighters from other groups flock to join it. ISIS may not have spent much time fighting the Syrian regime, but it has successfully weakened many rival groups.

Some commentators have accused ISIS of being the creation of Damascus, a monstrosity that the regime has fashioned in order to portray itself as the lesser evil.

Since it managed to occupy Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, a few weeks ago, ISIS has received a major boost. As it recruited fighters from other organisations, combatants waving its flags have appeared in the outskirts of Damascus and other areas in which it was hitherto non-existent.

Arsal was a case in point. Up to a month ago, the only extremist Sunni fighters in Lebanon were those of the Al-Nusra Front, and they were deployed on the outskirts of Arsal. Then a group from the Front led by Abul Hasan al-Filistini broke away and joined ISIS.

It was this development that galvanised the country to take action, and before long the army had moved in for the inevitable confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Front fighters felt that they were being dragged into a battle for which they had no appetite and were prepared to get out of Arsal with the least possible losses.

The Front conducted negotiations with the Council of Muslim Scholars, a religious group, a move that alienated ISIS hardliners who wanted to see more aggressive schemes such as taking the inhabitants hostage or sending booby-trapped cars to blow up army units.

Some of them proposed assaults in Sunni areas facing sectarian tensions, as well as in Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps.

But with only a small number of fighters, thought to be under 4,000 even with the Al-Nusra combatants thrown in, and no supply lines, ISIS was in poor shape.

When it was time to negotiate, its fighters demanded safe passage out of Arsal and into the northern Syrian town of Aleppo where it has more allies and better supply lines.

ISIS has no prospects in Lebanon, a country in which the Sunnis are the most westernised and forward-looking part of the population. But given its grandiose schemes for a caliphate, and the cash that backs those schemes, it may remain a threat for quite a while.

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