BEIRUT: The Independent’s Middle East correspondent described Arsal’s clashes as the start of a mini-civil war, the result of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s expansion toward Lebanese territory.
“The savage fighters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Sunni Muslim “caliphate” have at last arrived in Lebanon,” said Robert Fisk, in an analysis published Monday.
He described the violent clashes in Arsal, that have so far claimed the lives of 16 soldiers, 12 civilians and at least 50 extremist militants, as the spark of a mini-civil war in the town.
Fisk said that while media and public opinion switched their attention to “the slaughter in Gaza ... the Islamists’ arrival in Lebanon and the prospect of a mini-civil war around Arsal – and perhaps as far as Tripoli – could have repercussions far graver than the Gaza war.”
He highlighted the similarity between the Nusra Front’s practices in Arsal and ISIS’ strategies in Iraq and Syria, especially in terms of “seizing large buildings in the center of the town (in this case, the technical college, a hospital and a mosque) and clinging to them in the hope that their opponents would disintegrate.”
In this vein, he remarked that Arsal’s clashes had very similar results to those of the “Islamic victories in Iraq and Syria: reports of civilian executions, government soldiers taken hostage, at least 12 civilians confirmed dead, including five children and the prospect of long and bloody fighting ahead.”
Fisk backed his comparison by mentioning that Nusra Front members are pledging allegiance to ISIS’ “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and that the takeover of Arsal, as confirmed by the Lebanese Army chief and prime minister, was meticulously planned and “is part of a far greater rebel strategy.”
The article argued that the resurgence of extremist militants coming from Syria to Arsal demonstrated that “the Syrians have nothing like the control they have been claiming in the frontier lands,” especially as the Nusra Front combatants “had no difficulty in seizing 15 soldiers and almost as many Internal Security Forces personnel.”
Fisk said the Army-militants confrontation was “almost inevitable,” especially after the state forces had recently killed the Sunni jihadist Monzer al-Hasan - who had reportedly equipped suicide bombers to attack Shiite neighborhoods and the Iranian embassy in Beirut’s suburbs.
The killing of Al-Hasan, he explained, also followed the detention of Hussam al-Sabbagh, a Salafist militant who led Sunni militia forces in recent battles against Alawites in Tripoli.
According to Fisk, Sabbagh had fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq against US forces and was “one of the few Tripoli leaders who refused to participate in a government security plan for the city.”
However, the Beirut-based British journalist said “the Lebanese forces’ units are among the best integrated of Middle East armies.” The fact that the majority of its members are Sunni Muslims, he added, never prevented the Army from suppressing Sunni extremism. He mentioned the clashes of Sir al-Dinnieh in 2000 and Nahr al-Bared in 2007 as examples.