BEIRUT – Hezbollah brokered a deal over the weekend to bus hundreds of so-called Islamic State fighters and their families from a pocket of territory on the Lebanese-Syrian border into militant-held eastern Syria. With the evacuation of militants taking place on Monday, the Lebanese army now controls the strategic section of the border and is poised to expand their hold over Lebanon’s entire frontier with Syria, according to Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS),
Some background on how the deal came about: the Lebanese army and Hezbollah launched simultaneous but separate operations against ISIS positions in the border pocket from opposite sides last week. The forces then simultaneously announced a halt in fighting on Sunday, to determine the fate of nine Lebanese troops captured by ISIS in 2014. Lebanese authorities located the bodies of eight of the nine soldiers on Sunday.
The ceasefire paved the way for Hezbollah to broker the evacuation deal for the ISIS militants to be bused from a border crossing in Syria’s western Qalamoun region to the militant-held town of Boukamal in eastern Deir Ezzor, according to a Hezbollah media unit.
The operation raised concerns over possible coordination between Lebanese army units – which receive U.S. military aid – and Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Talk of potential coordination was heightened by the latest cease-fire agreement that involved some form of cooperation between Hezbollah and General Security, a state-run Lebanese security agency. The army, however, has repeatedly denied any form of cooperation with the Lebanese paramilitary group.
Hezbollah has praised the deal as proof of how its partnership with the army is essential for Lebanon’s stability. Abbas Ibrahim, the chief of Lebanese General Security, told local media on Monday that “the return of [ISIS] militants in air-conditioned cars to their countries is permissible because Lebanon adheres to the philosophy of a state that does not exact revenge.”
Syria Deeply spoke with Nerguizian about the ceasefire deal and what it could mean for Lebanon and Syria.
Syria Deeply: Over the weekend, Hezbollah took the lead in negotiations over an ISIS evacuation deal. At the same time, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were inching closer to expelling the militant group from the Lebanese border. Is the LAF on board with the cease-fire agreement or does it come across as a victory denied?
Aram Nerguizian: There is no doubt that some, if not many, in the LAF felt an obligation to go the distance against ISIS and push the militants out or defeat them outright without leaving an option for them to withdraw.
That being said, what the LAF really needed to accomplish in its counter-ISIS campaign was: 1) the withdrawal of ISIS elements from Lebanese territory, 2) establish with certainty the fate of LAF service men held captive by ISIS since 2014, and 3) and complete the campaign on its own as Lebanon’s principal legitimate national security actors.
As far as the LAF is concerned, it feels it has more than accomplished what it set out to do. The LAF now is poised to sit on 120 sq km (45 sq miles) of formerly ISIS-held territory, and other LAF border units are poised to consolidate the military deployment along the quasi-totality of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier.
This outcome is far from being a “victory denied.”
Syria Deeply: What does the end of the battle against ISIS on the Lebanese border mean for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and for Syria?
Nerguizian: It means that Lebanon will have its military deployed in force on the quasi-totality of its frontier with Syria. This hasn’t happened since Lebanon’s independence [November 22, 1943]. Over the last five years, areas that have been no-go zones for the Lebanese army for years – because they were spheres of Syrian government and/or Hezbollah preeminence – have gradually become LAF zones of control.
The conclusion of the ISIS offensive would put the LAF in a position where its forces would stretch from the Mediterranean to just north of the Shebaa Farms. It would be a comprehensive border-security framework under the purview of the Lebanese state. It’s going to have implications for how Lebanon and Syria conduct long-term bilateral relations, regardless of regime type in Damascus.
Syria Deeply: How so?
Nerguizian: Prior to its civil war, Syria would never have accepted a robust Lebanese military presence along a porous and – in key areas – contentious border. More than seven years later, the LAF is there and it is intent on having a lasting presence along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier.
In the past, the LAF would deploy to the North, the Bekaa or Hermel and it would be expeditionary: they would go for a short period and return to their barrack. Now you have LAF bases and command posts permanently stationed there. The LAF is now a lasting feature of the socioeconomic fabric of those parts Lebanon. These new realities have upended decades of Lebanese-Syrian ambiguity tied to their common border. This has, and will continue to have, an impact on relations with Syria, but how that plays out should Syria’s civil war come to a close is unclear.
Syria Deeply: Do you think LAF presence on the Syrian border would obstruct Iranian attempts to create a land corridor connecting Beirut, Iraq, Syria and Tehran?
Nerguizian: The LAF’s growing presence and activity along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier complicates any hypothetical land-bridge linking Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.
The LAF’s tolerance for being perceived as cooperating with Hezbollah or any of Lebanon’s political-sectarian factions has measurably decreased over the course of a decade, and has never been lower than it is in 2017.
Because the LAF now actively polices and monitors the vast majority of its border with Syria, there is significant overlap between the LAF’s preference not to coordinate with any Lebanese faction, and the need to actively interdict illicit activity along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. Over the last five years, the LAF has not shied away from stopping illicit materials, contraband and weapons from entering into Lebanon.
Hezbollah has actively worked to avoid using areas where the LAF is known to operate. However, as more LAF units are stood up, doing so has grown increasingly difficult. The real challenge will come if and when Hezbollah accepts or rejects curtailing what remains of its clandestine presence along Lebanon’s still-porous border with Syria.
Syria Deeply: The ceasefire agreement was announced simultaneously by Hezbollah and the LAF. Does that undermine claims that the Lebanese army is not cooperating with Hezbollah?
Not at all. The LAF has gone above and beyond in keeping separate its military operations against ISIS from any counter-ISIS efforts conducted by Hezbollah and the Assad regime on the Syrian side of the border.
The LAF has had no contact with ISIS’ leadership in Lebanon, but if Lebanon’s General Security Directorate was going to get some clarity on the fate of the nine LAF servicemen held captive since 2014, the LAF could afford a ceasefire – especially given the tactical success of the LAF on the ground.
If nothing else, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime calling for their own ceasefire and negotiations shows how wary they are that the LAF stood poised to rout ISIS in Lebanon on its own.
Syria Deeply: Why would Hezbollah and its Syrian allies be wary of an LAF success?
Nerguizian: Hezbollah walks a fine line when it comes to the LAF. Hezbollah cannot afford for the LAF not to be a competent, professional force that can maintain security and stability in Lebanon while they maintain expeditionary deployments in Syria and elsewhere. At the same time, Hezbollah does not want the LAF to be so capable that it believes itself to be Lebanon’s preeminent national security actor, possibly nullifying Hezbollah’s national security role and the confidence that some Lebanese have in its resistance narrative.
The LAF’s rapid and professional execution of the counter-ISIS campaign – without anyone’s help, and certainly not with the help of the Syrians or Hezbollah – has shattered the narrative in the minds of many Lebanese that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s preeminent national security actor.
Presented with such a singular challenge to its self-styled resistance and national security narrative, Hezbollah needed a cease-fire agreement to hasten the withdrawal of ISIS from the Lebanese-Syrian frontier and to consolidate its own reputation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can read Nerguizian’s report on “The Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah and the Race to Defeat ISIS” on the CSIS website.