BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army must take the lead in the fight against militants linked to ISIS here as part of a regional coalition against the group, experts said, though Hezbollah is likely to remain a key player in the battle.
Still, the emerging regional consensus that ISIS is a threat that must be fought is likely to help pave the way for a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could in turn revive dialogue between bickering political factions in Lebanon, the experts said.
“Lebanon, specifically, is key to the dynamics of the fight against ISIS, not least because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and because of the jihadists’ presence alongside the Lebanese border,” said Hassan Hassan, a Syrian analyst at the Delma Institute who has written extensively about the rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The United States has in recent days launched airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and carried out surveillance flights over Syria, raising the prospect of strikes there. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have also expressed a desire to crush the militant group, which has occupied large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq.
The prospect of a regional coalition against ISIS has relevance to Lebanon, where the Army earlier this month fought a pitched battle for the border town of Arsal, a bastion of the Syrian opposition, which was briefly overrun by ISIS and Nusra Front militants.
Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said the recent fighting in Arsal against ISIS should offer a case study on how Lebanon can contribute to the fight against the terror group. The first lesson from the battle of Arsal is that the fight cannot take on a sectarian bent.
“You can’t put Hezbollah in front of Daesh,” Nader said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
While Hezbollah is better armed than the Army, has more combat experience and probably a stronger drive to fight ISIS, it cannot be at the forefront of the fight without enflaming sectarian tension. Nader said the party appeared to realize that and took a back seat in the fight against the militants in Arsal.
He said the Lebanese Army must be at the forefront of the attempts to secure the border and prevent Syrian militants from passing into Lebanon unhindered, but that the military needs the international community’s support.
Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion to help modernize the Lebanese military as it fought the Arsal militants.
Nader said the other lesson from Arsal is that an alliance with moderate Sunnis is necessary in order to combat extremist phenomena like ISIS in Lebanon and the broader region. He cited the example of the U.S. empowering moderate Sunnis against Al-Qaeda as part of the Anbar Awakening campaign during the occupation of Iraq.
Moderate Sunnis could be empowered through offering sufficient security guarantees that would allow for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to remain in Beirut, as well as by offering support to moderate Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad, Nader said. But he warned against U.S. airstrikes that would be seen as aiding the Assad regime, likening it to “putting oil on the fire” of Sunni anger.
Hassan said that any American airstrikes against the group in Syria is likely to increase the polarization around the conflict in Lebanon, especially if Hezbollah continues to fight there, enflaming Sunni anger.
“Hezbollah’s involvement and rumors that the Americans might work with Assad against jihadists are dangerous ingredients for increased sectarian antagonism,” Hassan said. “Unless the fight against ISIS means a step forward for the Syrian opposition, any involvement of Hezbollah will backfire.”
But Hassan said Hezbollah could play a constructive, “essential” role in Lebanon, because its ideology offers a counterweight to ISIS and the party’s rhetoric condemning “takfiris” resonates among some of the Sunnis in Lebanon.
In addition, the party’s role on the border to help prevent the spillover of jihadists into the country “will be unavoidable for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Aron Lund, a Swedish journalist and analyst who authored several reports on the Syrian opposition, said Hezbollah will seek to combat the growth of ISIS cells in Lebanon as well as preventing them from crossing the border – more of what the party has been doing for the last few months.
But he pointed out that, while Hezbollah seems to be militarily effective in Syria, they do not appear to have been involved in many direct confrontations with ISIS itself.
“They’ve mostly fought other rebel factions, who are enemies of both ... [ISIS] and of Assad,” he said.
“As far as I am aware, Hezbollah’s main zones of influence in Syria are close to the Lebanese border, in Qalamoun and in the Qusair area, and in the capital Damascus, as well as in some Shiite communities elsewhere, such as in Busra al-Sham,” he added.
ISIS “hasn’t had a strong presence in these areas, although that may be changing.”
Hassan said the new anti- ISIS push will benefit Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, who are presenting themselves as the counterweight to ISIS.
“The Iranians and their allies are trying to seize the opportunity of the widespread alarmism toward ISIS to present themselves assertively as effective partners,” Hassan added.
Nader, the Levant Institute’s director, said a regional alliance involving Saudi Arabia and Iran against ISIS could pave the way for a rapprochement between bickering political factions in Lebanon, and perhaps to the election of a new president, despite long-standing differences on key issues like Hezbollah’s arms.
In addition to policing the jihadist presence, Lund said the Lebanese effort must include addressing the Syrian refugee crisis hand in hand with empowering “a responsible and inclusive central government.”
Lund said Lebanon’s problems were bigger than ISIS, and centered around the sectarian and political tension linked to the conflict in Syria. The group is “very interested in setting Lebanon alight” as a way of drawing fighters to it and feeding off of sectarian tension in the country.
“As long as [ISIS] doesn’t have a presence on the Lebanese border, one shouldn’t focus on ISIS as an organization, but rather on the growth of conflict and tension in Lebanon,” he said.
“In the end, the important thing is not whether jihadi attacks are claimed by ISIS or Al-Qaeda or the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, what matters is to prevent those attacks and reducing support for that sort of militancy.”