As fighting worsened in Arsal between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a coalition of extremist insurgents from Syria, analysts said that cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, remains strong despite different tactical approaches.
That bodes well for their joint objective as the LAF work to push jihadis back towards the Syrian border. Three days of intense shelling and fighting have forced an exodus of both Lebanese nationals and thousands of Syrian refugees who have taken up residence in makeshift villages in the Bekaa Valley.
We asked Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut; and Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut focusing on political developments in Lebanon and Syria, to weigh in on the battle strategy of Hezbollah and the LAF, as well as how the two groups are working together.
Syria Deeply: For Hezbollah, what are the implications of the past few days of fighting?
Rami Khouri: The implications are that Hezbollah has come out strongly like everyone else in Lebanon to support the LAF and reject what the salafists are doing. Hezbollah has been fighting these guys inside Syria. The implications are for all the Lebanese – the LAF, Hezbollah, the government – who are all facing the same threat from the extremists. There seems to be a united Lebanese response to this threat, with people fighting back militarily and politically.
Syria Deeply: What is the relationship like right now between the LAF and Hezbollah?
Khouri: My impression is that on this it’s quite good. It’s been clear for the last six months, since the bombings in December and January in Beirut, that Hezbollah forces and intelligence had been working much more closely with LAF, which is why it’s been relatively quiet. As to who’s actually doing the fighting this week, it seems to be the LAF and police.
Clearly the LAF is fighting back. They have lost 18 and there are 22 missing, and there’s definitely going to be a continued strong LAF response with support from Hezbollah and also the government. The cabinet made a unanimous statement of support [this week], and there will be continued military response to guard the region and prevent any more of these groups coming in from Syria.
Mario Abou Zeid: Lately in Qalamoun, Hezbollah has had severe casualties. [Right now] it’s pushing, encircling the Syrian fighters, stationing itself on the outskirts of Arsal. They didn’t – and couldn’t – start the fight in Arsal. It’s the last city connecting the borders. If Hezbollah were to get involved in the fight inside Lebanon, and not just inside Syria, it would result in anger from the Sunni community, directed at Hezbollah.
We would witness similar things to [the violence and sectarian divide in the northern Lebanese city of] Tripoli and there would be more attacks against Hezbollah strongholds all over Lebanon. So Hezbollah didn’t want to get into such a fight. This is why it has lately been pushing the LAF to go fight these groups in Arsal.
Whenever the LAF are included in any fight, they are the ones who take the lead. Hezbollah cannot include its fighters in an official capacity in any fight inside Lebanese borders because it has that dangerous national dimension. So even though there is cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah, Hezbollah cannot take the lead in this fight in Arsal, so the LAF did it. Hezbollah is trying to support the LAF by directing its rockets on the outskirts of Arsal, and cutting the roads to block extremist groups. But it cannot enter Arsal itself and fight.
Syria Deeply: How well equipped is the LAF to fight extremists?
Khouri: The LAF are decently equipped, and they can handle the situation on the ground as it stands. But if you suddenly have a big escalation and end up with hundreds or thousands more of these attackers invading several different places at once, it will definitely create a bigger challenge. But at this point I think the LAF can take care of it.
Syria Deeply: How will this play out?
Abou Zeid: Maybe there will be some tactical withdrawals from both sides, but I believe the fight will be a lengthy one. I think the army will have severe casualties from this fight. It started from inside Arsal, and then fighters came to join from [training] camps in Syria, and all those fighters can come join these fighters.
There are 7,000 to 8,000 fighters as part of the fight in Arsal. This is not about a couple of hundred fighters going up against the LAF, it’s about thousands. They’re well trained and ready to die to defend this last safe haven.
ISIS fighters are still there and not willing to abandon their fight. They are using the same strategy that they’re using in Mosul – trying to get Sunnis to mobilize and join the fight. And they are trying to control Arsal as a last haven for the fighters going back to Syria to fight the regime.