BEIRUT: Hezbollah’s leadership insists the party is providing only logistical support to the Army in its battle against militants in Arsal, but it continues to secure its grip on the surrounding areas and could enter the fray if Islamist fighters gain ground.
A high-ranking Hezbollah official told The Daily Star that the party is worried that the Army’s capabilities do not match its resolve to regain control of the Bekaa Valley town, where four days of clashes have killed 16 soldiers and nine civilians.
“It was not the arrest of Imad Jomaa that ignited the situation so much as [the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s] announcement that the time had come to implement its plan and announce a vast Islamic emirate, imposing its emirs while sabotaging the Arab world and pushing it into the furnace of ignorance and backwardness in the name of Islam,” he said.
In seeking to establish a foothold in Lebanon, he said, ISIS first used car bombs, then suicide bombers, until it was prepared to launch an open battle. The aim, he said, is to create a base linking the northern Bekaa Valley to Qalamoun stretching as far as Hama, Reef Homs, and Krak des Chevaliers in Syria and up to Tal Kalakh in Akkar. The group intends to use the area as springboard for ISIS in Lebanon, he said.
For now, Hezbollah has taken a decision to step back from the confrontation with ISIS in Arsal and leave the mission to the Lebanese Army, which has no choice but to stamp out the threat at any cost, even if it means sacrificing the lives of soldiers and officers, he said.
The party is proceeding carefully during this delicate time, especially in its public statements. Hezbollah is not looking to get tied up in an open-ended battle in Arsal and has limited its role to providing logistical support to the Lebanese Army as it did in the latter’s battle in Abra last year, the official said.
However, the party has deemed the 11 kilometers separating Arsal from Labweh, a bastion of support for Hezbollah, a red line which could trigger the party’s direct intervention. Party leadership considers control of this stretch crucial to limiting the spread of ISIS, tightening control over all Lebanese areas and driving Syrian militants back into Syria.
Fighting ISIS on Lebanese soil poses serious challenges to the party, not the least of which is the sensitivity of Hezbollah’s use of arms internally. In addition to the human cost of fighting, there is also the possibility ISIS could succeed in pushing deeper into Lebanese territory and even bring the battle to Hezbollah’s geographic base.
According to sources in Hezbollah’s operations room, there is currently no possibility of the party entering Arsal, regardless of the number of Syrian, Arab and foreign fighters that would welcome the excuse to spread out from Arsal, where they have only been able to establish a foothold by “exploiting the presence of the many displaced Syrians and intimidating the local population.”
The Hezbollah official noted that just because the Army enjoys near unanimous political support does not mean it will be able to drive out the militants and reassert control over Arsal quickly.
“Look at the contradiction within the Future Movement, with Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri supporting [the Army] on the one hand and the terrifying silence of a large number of his lawmakers on the other, not to mention the tripartite escalation,” he said, referring to Future lawmakers Mouin Merhebi, Khaled Daher and Mohammad Kabbara, who have accused the Army of targeting Sunnis. “Political divisions may be natural, but compromising national unity and supporting terrorism are among the greatest acts of treason and totally unacceptable from a democratic standpoint.
“The Lebanese Army cannot face the threat of terrorism with bare chests and outdated weapons,” he continued. “Those soldiers and officers need modern tools, especially helicopters equipped with guided missiles, to destroy the militants’ hold on Arsal.”
The official condemned France for failing to meet the requests of the Lebanese Army for arms and ammunition promised by Saudi Arabia when it made its $3 billion gift last year.
“The grant included modern weapons and helicopters that would have enabled the Army to finish the battle quickly,” he said. “Perhaps the intention was to drag the Army and the resistance along with it into a long war of attrition, thus linking the security situation in Lebanon with events in Syria and the implosion of Iraq.”