BEIRUT: Free Syrian Army commanders around Arsal vehemently deny any involvement in recent clashes with the Lebanese security forces, but admit to cooperating with Islamist groups in military operations along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Often at odds on the Syrian battlefields, the FSA, Nusra Front and ISIS have entered a tenuous allegiance of convenience to fight Assad-aligned forces in the badlands surrounding Arsal.
“We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in ... Qalamoun,” said Bassel Idriss, the commander of an FSA-aligned rebel brigade.
“We have reached a point where we have to collaborate with anyone against unfairness and injustice,” confirmed Abu Khaled, another FSA commander who lives in Arsal.
“Let’s face it: The Nusra Front is the biggest power present right now in Qalamoun and we as FSA would collaborate on any mission they launch as long as it coincides with our values,” he added.
Uneasy bedfellows, the FSA and the Islamist groups have until now only engaged in limited coordination.
FSA commanders in and around Aral denounced recent clashes between Islamists and the Lebanese security forces. At least 22 Lebanese soldiers and policemen are being held hostage by the Nusra Front and ISIS after they were captured during bloody battles last month. At least one FSA member is involved in negotiations to secure their release.
“Our battle is with the Assad regime, and it is on Syrian lands only,” agreed Idriss, the captain of an FSA unit. “It is not with the Lebanese Army.”
“We had nothing to do with what happed in Arsal,” said Abu Fidaa, a retired Colonel in the Syrian army who is now the head of the Revolutionary Council in Qalamoun.
“Our soldiers receive constant instructions to avoid any confrontations with the Lebanese Army,” Abu Fidaa added.
His men are treated in kind, he added. “At the checkpoints, even if they know we are FSA, Lebanese soldiers avoid confrontations.”
Many FSA fighters in Arsal have families living as refugees in tented settlements around the town. Fearing their kin will face backlash or be caught in the crossfire, FSA commanders say their men refuse to fight on Lebanese soil. “When they are in Arsal, they are just there to visit their wives and children, to rest for a few days” before returning to battle in the town’s rugged outskirts, he said.
FSA units stationed on the outskirts of Arsal were unable to stop the Islamists’ advance on the town last month, or prevent ongoing skirmishes with the Lebanese security forces in the area.
While the FSA’s waning influence is not a new phenomenon, its decline in power around Arsal poses a particular threat to Lebanese security forces as Islamists rush to fill the void it leaves behind.
The clashes in Arsal last month were sparked after the arrest of Imad Jomaa, an Islamist based in Arsal who had been aligned with the FSA before pledging allegiance to ISIS in July. His 150-strong Fajr al-Islam brigade followed him.
Jomaa and his men, however, are not alone.
Young, battle-hardened men around Arsal are joining the militarily successful, deep-pocketed Islamist militias in increasing numbers.
ISIS “wanted to enhance its presence in the Western Qalamoun area. After the fall of Yabroud and the FSA’s retreat into the hills [around Arsal], many units pledged allegiance” to ISIS, Idriss said.
“A very large number of FSA members [in Arsal] have joined ISIS and Nusra,” Abu Fidaa said.
“In the end, people want to eat, they want to live, and the Islamic State has everything,” he said.
But researcher at the University of Maryland Philip Smyth said that the geographic isolation of Arsal probably contributed to the decline of the FSA’s influence there.
“They’re hemmed in,” Smyth said. “They’re surrounded on all sides by Hezbollah.” Redeploying troops and coordinating tactically with other FSA brigades elsewhere in Syria would be exceedingly difficult in Arsal, he said.
The rise of a rapidly expanding and well organized group, namely ISIS, would have particular appeal for disenchanted FSA fighters in Arsal, Smyth said.
But FSA fighters say the increasingly hostile climate, particularly for Syrian refugees in Arsal, is also a major reason for radicalization.
Several FSA commanders suggested that if the living conditions and treatment of Syrian refugees in Arsal do not improve, young people will continue to be drawn to radical Islamist groups.
“The security of Lebanon will be threatened if the government continues to issue harsh policies toward refugees,” Abu Fidaa said.