BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army will have to conduct grueling counter-insurgency operations to remove militants from the embattled town of Arsal, while imposing new security measures to identify militants hiding among refugees, analysts and experts have said.They also warned against recurring attacks targeting the Army, saying it must be offered the necessary political support to bring peace to the northeastern border with Syria.
Eleven soldiers were killed and more than two dozen wounded in clashes in Arsal and its outskirts between the Army and radical militants, who are also fighting against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Militants stormed Lebanese Army checkpoints and a police station, kidnapping police officers and killing soldiers. The fighting has raged for two days now.
Mario Abou Zeid, a Lebanon expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the attacks against the Lebanese Army were part of an effort to turn Arsal into a safe haven for fighters fleeing from Syria who wished to regroup and return.
The aim was to isolate the Army from Arsal. The attacks from within the city were a surprise escalation and a push in that direction.
“They wanted it as a last safe base for them to operate and go back to fight in Syria,” Abou Zeid said.
The Lebanese Army, in coordination with Hezbollah, was preparing a ground offensive against armed militants in the mountainous region surrounding Arsal. A series of Hezbollah and Syrian regime successes in a major campaign against rebels in the border province of Qalamoun had pushed rebels out and into the porous mountain terrain straddling the border between Lebanon and Syria, where some persisted in launching attacks on Lebanese targets from the mountains near Arsal.
Some former fighters had also sought refuge in Arsal and the refugee settlements at its outskirts.
Abou Zeid said the Army was likely conducting a strategy to divide and isolate the “amalgam” of fighters belonging to various opposition factions in the city, attacking pockets of fighters and preventing them from linking up to their bases outside the city, while allowing Hezbollah to cut off the roads leading from Arsal to the mountain refuge.
Abou Zeid said the Army’s greatest challenge was to convince Arsal’s residents that it was only aiming to dissociate Lebanese territories from the Syrian conflict, rather than fighting alongside Hezbollah or specifically targeting the Sunni community.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and expert on Syrian rebel groups, said the attack appeared to have been a coordinated effort involving multiple rebel factions based in the Qalamoun region and extending over the border – groups that included the Al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria the Nusra Front and Jaish al-Islam, factions that are battling each other elsewhere in Syria.
“It’s clear the factions in Qalamoun going over the border are actually united in working together to fight what they see as common enemies, notably the regime, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese Army,” Tamimi said.
As for the Lebanese Army, Tamimi agreed that its role in sealing off the border, in apparent coordination with Hezbollah, had made it a target for rebel groups.
Tamimi said the attacks would likely continue. While the Syrian Army backed by Hezbollah has managed to oust rebels from towns and cities in the area, many fighters have dispersed into rural areas where they can elude a decisive defeat.
“Ultimately, I think this is indicative of the wider problem one sees with management of the overall insurgency in Syria and by extension going into Lebanese border areas,” he said. “The regime and aligned forces might be able to clear out urban areas, but the insurgency always lurks around and persists in the rural areas to some degree.”
Unless a massive rift occurs among the rebels, these cross-border attacks will likely continue, Tamimi said.
“It will be difficult for the Lebanese Army to impose definite order on the border areas,” he added.
Nizar Abdel Qader, a retired Army general, said the military’s response to the situation had been effective but the Army faced a “complicated operation” in now having to remove militant fighters from Arsal.
He said the Lebanese military, as a symbol of national unity and civil peace, could not use massive firepower similar to the Syrian Army in its civil war or Israel in its war on Gaza. Nor could the Army launch a campaign as intense as the Nahr al-Bared operation in 2007.
Instead, he said, the Army must seal off the entrances to Arsal, warn residents to avoid the gunmen and use Special Forces to cleanse specific neighborhoods of the militants. Given that some of the fighters facing the Army have experience in other theaters like Iraq and Syria, the operation will not be easy.
“The fighting will be fiercer,” he said, adding that he was confident the Army could gain the upper hand.
He said the Army must be vigilant to prevent the recruitment of individuals in the refugee population either by fundamentalist groups or by Syrian regime intelligence.
He said refugees must be vetted to ensure that they genuinely needed humanitarian assistance, and if necessary refugee camps would have to be set up to house the displaced. Such camps must also be subject to security measures, and Lebanon should learn from the examples of Turkey and Jordan, themselves home to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
After resolving the crisis in Arsal, the settlements there must be surveyed to identify refugees and gunmen, added Abdel Qader.
But he said the bigger question was whether the government would have the political will and unity to fully back the Army in its efforts in the current crisis.
“Can this government with all the factions in it agree on the necessity of resolving this issue in a deep and studied way to prevent a crisis that can affect national unity?” he said.