Understanding ISIS’ dicey battle in Lebanon
By: Joyce Karam
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), supported by a large coalition of radical militants including Jabhat al-Nusra expanded its battles this week into Arsal, Lebanon. The ferocious fighting in the northeastern town on the Lebanese-Syrian border has so far resulted in 16 deaths and 22 abductions from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and is trapping civilians in the line of fire.
The Arsal battle is no walk in the park, and the Lebanese government should strike a very delicate balance in approaching the threat. Repeating the blunders of the Iraqi government by antagonizing the locals will only benefit ISIS, while a sectarian bloodbath will drive Lebanon into the abyss. Combatting the threat has to take into account the sectarian divisions and the larger political environment in the country.
Understanding the threat
Anyone following the Lebanese political landscape since the Syrian crisis broke out in March of 2011 should not be surprised by the breakout in the fighting in Arsal last week. While the trigger was the arrest of Emad Jumaa, a former Nusra leader who recently pledged allegiance to ISIS’ Caliphate, the current situation has been long in the making and is driven by both the Syrian spillover and sectarian tension inside Lebanon. Arsal itself is a largely Sunni town, before the Syrian refugee crisis its population was estimated by officials at around 40,000 residents. Figures released by the U.N. Refugee Agency at the end of June put the official registered Syrian population at over 40,000, with unofficial estimates suggesting that figure could be as high as 100,000, according to the Daily Star. It is located in Baalbak province, where the majority is Shiite.
Hezbollah’s public rationale to join the war has been to protect Lebanon from the extremists’ threat dubbed as “takfirists” by the party
By virtue of geography and having its longest border with Syria (375 kilometers), a spillover from the Syrian conflict to Lebanon was almost inevitable. Arsal was one of the border towns to witness sporadic waves of clashes between the Syrian militants and the LAF in the last year. It has also been a target for the Syrian regime Air Force, which violated Lebanese sovereignty to hit the rebels. These waves intensified following the entry of the Shiite Lebanese militant party Hezbollah into the Syrian war in May 2013. The party fighters defied the Lebanon’s official policy of “dissociating from Syria” and have had major roles in the battles of Qalamoun, Homs, Damascus suburbs and Qusayr.
Hezbollah’s public rationale to join the war has been to protect Lebanon from the extremists’ threat dubbed as “takfirists” by the party. In short, Hezbollah wanted to fight the “takfirists” on their own turf and prevent them from coming into Lebanon. This argument, however, is crumbling in Arsal and other pockets in Lebanon where radicals have gained a foothold. Their expansion has proven that the porous border is a two way street for both ISIS and Hezbollah. Many of the Syrian fighters including Jumaa have come to Arsal from Qalamoun and the battles are not showing signs of abatement.
There are no official numbers of the militants numbers in Arsal, some reports have estimated them at 6000 fighters encompassing a coalition of ISIS, Nusra, Farouq brigades, and Liwaa Islam.
Combatting the threat
The Lebanese government should employ a dual military and political strategy in tackling the threat. In that regard, it is incumbent on the international community to help the LAF in counterterrorism efforts and border control.
The Lebanese-Syrian border is one of the most permeable areas in the region. Prior to the Syrian conflict, the northeastern border near Arsal was popular for drug smuggling and as a major route for Iranian arms to Hezbollah. For decades, the Syrian regime has resisted international calls to demarcate it, and Lebanon has not had the military power to secure it. Yet, any successful LAF operation has to prioritize border security from and into Syria, and the $1 billion in Saudi aid package via France to the LAF is vital in that regard. Lebanon will also be one of the recipients of the $5 billion counterterrorism fund that U.S. President Barack Obama announced on May 28.
But the military aspect without a political strategy is bound to fail. Strengthening Lebanon’s political defenses by voting for a president after two months of void is key to ensuring the country’s stability. The void subdued the international community’s confidence in Lebanon and its ability to meet its obligations and come together and bridge political differences. These political divisions that hinder an agreement on a president are also exacerbated by sectarian tension and a Sunni-Shiite rift that ISIS and other radicals seem to exploit. The pockets most vulnerable to ISIS infiltration are those with most Sunni grievances in places such as Tripoli, Sidon and among the Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
While the LAF is to be commended on its efforts to fight radical militants, there is no military fix for dealing with local sectarian grievances. The Arsal events should be a wakeup call for the Lebanese political class to put the interest of the country ahead of each party’s narrow calculus and activate the political process internally instead of fighting someone else’s wars.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam