BEIRUT: The battle on Arsal’s outskirts will end in victory for Hezbollah, either through a settlement with the militants or by strength of arms, the party’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said during a televised speech Wednesday. “We are on the verge of a massive victory ... which will be completed, God willing, in the field or through negotiations,” he said.
“This land will [be] returned to its people ... and the military page will be turned completely in Lebanon,” he added, referring to the threats the presence of extremist armed militants have posed to Lebanon’s security. Nasrallah highlighted the role of the Lebanese Army in ensuring the protection of Arsal and its residents, lauding the part it played as “essential.”
“Their presence on the front lines contributed to ... preventing [militant] fighters entering or leaving [the town]. ... This atmosphere created an air of stability in the town of Arsal and contributed to its protection,” he said. “This cut the [hopes] of those who were betting the opposite would happen.”
He also praised the role of Lebanon’s internal security establishment. “There were bomb laden cars and belts being created,” he said. “But all the terror cells in Lebanon were busted, thanks to the efforts of the Lebanese Army and security services.”
On the eve of the offensive Thursday last week, concerns had arisen that the militants would attempt to sneak into Arsal and use its inhabitants as human shields.
Nasrallah revealed that Hezbollah will hand over all the areas and positions it will have captured over to the Lebanese Army immediately after the battle.
He added that negotiations with the militants are ongoing and are being conducted through an “official Lebanese channel.” Turning to the timing of the battle, Nasrallah stressed it was based on an internal deliberation, dismissing critics who had claimed the launch of the offensive was on Iranian orders.
“We had two choices: either to start before or after Ramadan, but it could have extended into [the holy month] so we decided [to start] after Ramadan,” he said. “This had nothing to do with outside developments. Such a battle cannot be prepared in a few days ... it needs preparation ... and it shows that is not related to any political decisions that took place recently. Since the beginning, we said that the [developments] on the ground would speak for themselves.”
Nasrallah also confirmed that soldiers from the Syrian regime’s Syrian Arab Army were “fighting shoulder to shoulder” with Hezbollah’s men on the outskirts of Flita, which falls on the Syrian side of the border.
“They have martyrs and wounded but we can say that in the Syrian areas there are no longer Nusra [militants],” he said.
Nasrallah also praised the “rational and responsible” conduct of Saraya Ahl al-Sham, a Free Syrian Army group that first engaged in battles in Arsal against Hezbollah, but later withdrew from the front lines to the Syrian refugee encampments in Arsal’s Wadi Hmayyed and al-Malahi.
He also stressed that his party will not enter the settlements, adding that it will work with the Syrian and Lebanese governments to arrange for a safe passage for Saraya Ahl al-Sham out of Lebanon. Nasrallah said that leaders of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham did not respond to propositions for a settlement.
“We offered [a settlement] in public and in private,” Nasrallah said, adding that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham “made a wrong decision” to enter the fight against Hezbollah. “It is a matter of a few kilometers,” he said, explaining they have limited options. “Hezbollah is offering them a settlement, the Lebanese Army is in Arsal, and Daesh wants to humiliate them before helping them,” Nasrallah said.
At the conclusion of his speech, Nasrallah addressed Hezbollah’s fighters directly. He praised them for their efforts, assuring them that they were the sole reason behind Hezbollah’s victories.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri said while heading a delegation to the U.S. capital that he did not condone Hezbollah’s offensive in the border area. Speaking at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he said that he preferred to see the Army conducting the operation against the militants.
In contrast, Speaker Nabih Berri stressed the importance of Hezbollah’s offensive when addressing visiting MPs. “Arsal deserves such endeavors to liberate its lands from militants,” Berri said.
Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea said that Hezbollah’s advance was a positive development for Lebanon. “This will protect villages [in the region] and put them at ease,” Geagea told a local daily.
Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf and Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun also discussed developments in Arsal and the role of the Army.
“The meeting focused on the operations the Army is conducting on the eastern border and the precautions taken to prevent terrorists from sneaking [into Arsal],” a statement from the Defense Ministry read. – Additional reporting by Rana al-Hajj