Lebanese Army vows to finish Arsal battle in ‘48 hours’
Rakan al-Fakih/Nidal al-Solh| The Daily Star
ARSAL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army is gearing up to finish the battle against militants in the northeastern town of Arsal in the next 48 hours after two days of fierce clashes killed 11 soldiers and 40 gunmen, security sources said Sunday. “The Army has decided to finish the battle [in Arsal] within the next 48 hours,” a security source told The Daily Star.
The source said Hezbollah, which is trying along with the Syrian army to root out Syrian rebels from the Qalamoun region near the border, has decided not to intervene in the Arsal fighting in order “to prevent matters taking a [sectarian] turn.” At least 11 Lebanese soldiers were killed and 15 taken hostage in the weekend battles between the Army and Islamist militants in and around Arsal, in the most serious spillover of violence from the war in Syria. The fighting in Arsal, located near the border with Syria, in which at least 40 militants, mostly from Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, were also killed, heightened fears Lebanon could be dragged further into the Syrian war with all the dire consequences this entailed on the country’s fragile security and stability.
The government confirmed that the Army’s campaign against militants in Arsal would continue.
As the fighting raged on at midnight Sunday, the Army recovered some of its posts on Arsal’s outskirts captured by militants.
“Army units continue their military operations in Arsal and its surroundings, where they were able to expel the gunmen from the Arsal vocational building who tried to take it over,” the Army said in a statement. In response to calls by the Tripoli-based Muslim Ulema Committee for an immediate halt to the fighting in Arsal, the Army Command demanded that all missing soldiers be handed over first before agreeing to any truce. The fighting led thousands of Arsal’s residents to flee to safer areas.Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said the Army would continue fighting terrorism and takfiri groups.
“What happened today is far more dangerous than what some people believe,” he said. “The terrorist attack was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned long ago, waiting for the appropriate time.” Speaking at a rare news conference at the Defense Ministry in Yarze, Kahwagi confirmed that 10 soldiers were killed, 25 others, including four officers, were wounded and 13 were missing, saying that they were most likely taken prisoner by the militants. Shortly after he spoke, a Lebanese sergeant, Yehia Dirani, died in clashes near Arsal’s technical institute, bringing the death toll to 11.
Later, security sources said 30 soldiers were wounded and 15 missing.
In addition to the 15 missing soldiers, there are 16 members of the Internal Security Forces who were captured by Syrian rebels and are currently held at the house of Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri in Arsal.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam chaired an extraordinary security meeting at the Grand Serail Sunday to cope with the dramatic security developments in Arsal.
“Chiefs of security institutions and apparatuses reviewed the latest information relating to the attack on Lebanese sovereignty in the town of Arsal and its environs and the efforts made by the Army and security forces to confront the design which terrorist gunmen have begun implementing in the region,” Defense Minister Samir Moqbel said after the meeting.In response to a question, he said: “The military operation in Arsal will continue.” He denied reports that Hezbollah was helping the Army in its battle against militants. “The Army is the only [force] in Arsal fighting terrorists. No compromise at the Army’s expense.” Moqbel said security chiefs pointed out that Arsal’s residents supported the Army and security forces. The Cabinet will hold a special session Monday to follow up on the situation in Arsal. In an apparent sequel to the Arsal fighting, tensions ran high in the northern city of Tripoli after militants attacked several Army posts there overnight Saturday, wounding two soldiers, security sources told The Daily Star. Gunmen affiliated with militia leaders Chadi al-Mawlawi, his brother Nizar Mawlawi and Osama Mansour, known as Abu Mansour, attacked Army posts in the impoverished neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in retaliation for the Army’s operation against militants in Arsal, the sources said. They added that the Army took measures to beef up its positions and checkpoints in Tripoli to forestall any attack. The fighting in Arsal began Saturday after troops detained Imad Ahmad Jomaa, a prominent Syrian rebel commander. Shortly afterward, bearded gunmen attacked several military posts and checkpoints in Arsal and seized the local police station, taking 16 ISF members captive. They demanded that Jomaa be released. Two residents in Arsal were killed, reportedly as they tried to hold back the militants. Moqbel said Jomaa belonged to Nusra Front. However, Nusra Front denied via Twitter that Jomaa was part of the group. It also denied that its gunmen were involved in the Arsal clashes. Kahwagi vowed the Army would continue its military operations to fight terrorism, denying reports that the fighting was triggered by Jomaa’s arrest.
“What happened was very dangerous. The arrested man had confessed that he was planning a massive operation against the Army,” he said.
Kahwagi vowed to foil attempts to transport Syria’s war to Lebanon. “The Army will not allow what happened on the Iraqi-Syrian border to spread to Lebanon,” he said, referring to the control by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) of wide swaths of territory across Iraqi-Syrian border. But he warned that “Lebanon’s geography will not be far from this threat.”The Arsal fighting evoked nationwide support from the country’s rival political leaders for the Army as well as from the United States, which urged respect for Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria. Hezbollah praised the military’s determination to confront “criminal attacks by terrorist groups” on Lebanon’s people and Army, and voiced solidarity with the military institution.
“ Hezbollah stands united with this institution [Army] in confronting the dangers facing our country which threaten its unity, sovereignty and stability,” the party said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador David Hale met with Kahwagi, expressing his country’s support for the Army’s fight against terrorism.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut issued a statement saying Hale expressed American solidarity with the Lebanese Army and encouraged all parties to work to insulate Lebanon from regional conflicts.
The U.S. State Department also issued a statement condemning the attack on the Lebanese Army. “We urge all parties in Lebanon to respect the Lebanese government’s policy of dissociation from regional conflicts, as stated in the Baabda Declaration,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in the statement. “The United States is committed to Lebanon’s security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We will continue our strong support for Lebanon’s state institutions, including the LAF and the ISF.”
Army faces tough job to rid town of rebels
Kareem Shaheen| The Daily Star/BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army will have to conduct grueling counter-insurgency operations to remove militants from the embattled town of Arsal, while imposing new security measures to identify militants hiding among refugees, analysts and experts have said.They also warned against recurring attacks targeting the Army, saying it must be offered the necessary political support to bring peace to the northeastern border with Syria. Eleven soldiers were killed and more than two dozen wounded in clashes in Arsal and its outskirts between the Army and radical militants, who are also fighting against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Militants stormed Lebanese Army checkpoints and a police station, kidnapping police officers and killing soldiers. The fighting has raged for two days now. Mario Abou Zeid, a Lebanon expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the attacks against the Lebanese Army were part of an effort to turn Arsal into a safe haven for fighters fleeing from Syria who wished to regroup and return. The aim was to isolate the Army from Arsal. The attacks from within the city were a surprise escalation and a push in that direction. “They wanted it as a last safe base for them to operate and go back to fight in Syria,” Abou Zeid said. The Lebanese Army, in coordination with Hezbollah, was preparing a ground offensive against armed militants in the mountainous region surrounding Arsal. A series of Hezbollah and Syrian regime successes in a major campaign against rebels in the border province of Qalamoun had pushed rebels out and into the porous mountain terrain straddling the border between Lebanon and Syria, where some persisted in launching attacks on Lebanese targets from the mountains near Arsal.
Some former fighters had also sought refuge in Arsal and the refugee settlements at its outskirts.
Abou Zeid said the Army was likely conducting a strategy to divide and isolate the “amalgam” of fighters belonging to various opposition factions in the city, attacking pockets of fighters and preventing them from linking up to their bases outside the city, while allowing Hezbollah to cut off the roads leading from Arsal to the mountain refuge.
Abou Zeid said the Army’s greatest challenge was to convince Arsal’s residents that it was only aiming to dissociate Lebanese territories from the Syrian conflict, rather than fighting alongside Hezbollah or specifically targeting the Sunni community. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and expert on Syrian rebel groups, said the attack appeared to have been a coordinated effort involving multiple rebel factions based in the Qalamoun region and extending over the border – groups that included the Al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria the Nusra Front and Jaish al-Islam, factions that are battling each other elsewhere in Syria.
“It’s clear the factions in Qalamoun going over the border are actually united in working together to fight what they see as common enemies, notably the regime, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese Army,” Tamimi said. As for the Lebanese Army, Tamimi agreed that its role in sealing off the border, in apparent coordination with Hezbollah, had made it a target for rebel groups.
Tamimi said the attacks would likely continue. While the Syrian Army backed by Hezbollah has managed to oust rebels from towns and cities in the area, many fighters have dispersed into rural areas where they can elude a decisive defeat.
“Ultimately, I think this is indicative of the wider problem one sees with management of the overall insurgency in Syria and by extension going into Lebanese border areas,” he said. “The regime and aligned forces might be able to clear out urban areas, but the insurgency always lurks around and persists in the rural areas to some degree.” Unless a massive rift occurs among the rebels, these cross-border attacks will likely continue, Tamimi said. “It will be difficult for the Lebanese Army to impose definite order on the border areas,” he added.Nizar Abdel Qader, a retired Army general, said the military’s response to the situation had been effective but the Army faced a “complicated operation” in now having to remove militant fighters from Arsal.
He said the Lebanese military, as a symbol of national unity and civil peace, could not use massive firepower similar to the Syrian Army in its civil war or Israel in its war on Gaza. Nor could the Army launch a campaign as intense as the Nahr al-Bared operation in 2007. Instead, he said, the Army must seal off the entrances to Arsal, warn residents to avoid the gunmen and use Special Forces to cleanse specific neighborhoods of the militants. Given that some of the fighters facing the Army have experience in other theaters like Iraq and Syria, the operation will not be easy.
“The fighting will be fiercer,” he said, adding that he was confident the Army could gain the upper hand. He said the Army must be vigilant to prevent the recruitment of individuals in the refugee population either by fundamentalist groups or by Syrian regime intelligence. He said refugees must be vetted to ensure that they genuinely needed humanitarian assistance, and if necessary refugee camps would have to be set up to house the displaced. Such camps must also be subject to security measures, and Lebanon should learn from the examples of Turkey and Jordan, themselves home to hundreds of thousands of refugees. After resolving the crisis in Arsal, the settlements there must be surveyed to identify refugees and gunmen, added Abdel Qader. But he said the bigger question was whether the government would have the political will and unity to fully back the Army in its efforts in the current crisis. “Can this government with all the factions in it agree on the necessity of resolving this issue in a deep and studied way to prevent a crisis that can affect national unity?” he said.
Some Arsalis flee, others remain
Nidal al-Solh/Samya Kullab| The Daily Star
ARSAL/BEIRUT: Gripped with the fear that violence might soon consume their town, numerous Arsal residents have fled to neighboring areas, while others have opted to stay and protect their properties. Streams of cars were seen leaving the town Sunday afternoon, carrying families fearful that the clashes would escalate. Residents in and around areas where the violence was especially severe moved to safer areas inside Arsal, while others left the town entirely to take shelter in Baalbek and the nearby towns of Ras Baalbek and Fakiha.Civilian Mohammad Qassem Fliti died after he was shot in the head by militant gunfire on the rooftop of his home, a security source told The Daily Star.
Two Syrian infants also died and 23 Syrian refugees were wounded as a result of the ongoing clashes, the source added.
The wounded refugees were treated at Dr. Kassem al-Zein’s field hospital. When The Daily Star interviewed Zein early Sunday evening, he was tending to some 52 wounded patients.
Most, he said, were Syrian refugees who had suffered from severe lacerations as a result of bombing. About 30 required immediate surgery. “The bombardment is ongoing but our medical supplies are running short, which is the usual case but is exacerbated during a crisis,” he said. Those who could not flee cited the lack of a safe passage and overriding concern to maintain their only assets, namely property, as reasons. “Whoever is able to flee is not hesitating, but we cannot because the clashes are taking place just down the street,” Mohammad Hujeiri, a Lebanese resident of Arsal told The Daily Star over the phone, describing the sounds of artillery fire ricocheting across his neighborhood. “There are fierce battles ongoing and most people are staying home,” said Merhi Fliti, another Arsal resident, describing the atmosphere inside the town. The risk of spillover from the Syrian crisis has loomed over Arsal for the past few months, especially after the fall of Yabroud in March, when thousands of rebel fighters reportedly escaped and went into hiding in the town’s rugged outskirts. Tareq Hujieri’s family experienced firsthand the outcome of spillover on Jan. 14 when his wife Israa was injured after their house was struck by a Syrian regime missile. The family chose to stay put despite the possibility of militant advances. “The situation is very bad and the crisis has nothing to do with Arsal or its people,” he said. Despite hearing the news that residents were evacuating en masse, he said those he knew were adamant about staying. “We can’t leave our homes,” he said.
The situation on the ground appeared to be deteriorating rapidly, he said, estimating that over 60 bombs had hit residential areas. Gunmen were roaming the streets, he said, “but we haven’t spotted the Army inside the town since yesterday.” Claims made by Fliti that blocked roads in Labweh had impeded Arsalis from leaving the town were categorically denied by Labweh’s mayor Ramez Amhaz, who said: “The road from Arsal is fully open and numerous cars have been bringing families to Labweh.
“We don’t consider them immigrants; they should think of Labweh as their home and we will host them with open hearts,” he said. “We know if they weren’t obliged to, they wouldn’t have fled their own town.” A senior Army Intelligence officer based in the Bekaa Valley, who requested anonymity because he didn’t have authorization to speak to the press, also confirmed that roads were open to Arsal residents fleeing violence. Stressing that many residents fleeing Arsal had relatives in Labweh, Amhaz said he was not concerned about the possibility of clashes reaching his municipality.
Arsal is home to 40,000 Lebanese residents and over 40,000 Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Municipal estimates, however, put the number of Syrians in the town to about 100,000. The Islamist militants were believed to have been hiding out inside camps, putting refugees at risk of assault. “We continue to be in close contact with the civilian authorities of Arsal as well as our counterparts in the Lebanese Social Affairs Ministry, along with our sister U.N. and other partner agencies,” said Brian Hansford, a spokesperson for the UNHCR. “Contingency plans are in place and supplies have been stockpiled while we continue to assess this very fast-moving situation,” he added. By Sunday evening, the fighting appeared to be restricted to five main border crossings, with the most intense clashes taking place in the Wadi Hmeid checkpoint. An Army checkpoint along a valley in Shoob, a neighborhood by the entrance to Arsal, has also been the target of sniper fire by militants, who are deployed on the hills surrounding the checkpoint. – Additional reporting by Hachem Osseiran and Nizar Hassan
Who is Imad Ahmad Jomaa?
Venetia Rainey| The Daily Star
03 August/14/BEIRUT: Following the Army’s arrest of Imad Ahmad Jomaa, a prominent Syrian rebel commander, Islamists in the town of Arsal Saturday went on a rampage, attacking checkpoints, kidnapping Lebanese soldiers and kick-starting weekendlong deadly clashes that have residents fleeing for safety.But who was Jomaa – also known as Abu Ahmad Jomaa and Mahmoud Jomaa – and why has his arrest precipitated some of the worst unrest in Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began? Jomaa, who is in his late 20s and hails from Qusair, is considered the leader of the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, which was originally part of the Homs-based Farouk Brigades, an Islamist group fighting in Syria. “He likes the limelight and fame,” according to Capt. Bassel Idriss, a commander of the secular rebel 77 Katiba unit who knew Jomaa. “He started fighting in Qusair, then Qalamoun. He was a fierce, distinguished fighter.” His background, according to Idriss, was hardly that of a born-and-bred fundamentalist. “He hails from a simple, poor family, and his family was never very religious … before the revolution he had a Suzuki van that he used to sell milk. He has two brothers and three sisters, and is divorced but remarried two years ago.”Jomaa was heavily involved in the battle for Syria’s strategic and mountainous Qalamoun region, most of which was seized by Syrian regime and Hezbollah troops in spring last year. Fajr al-Islam was active in Qusair, and after it fell, Jomaa relocated to the outskirts of the town of Qara, and after Yabroud fell, to Wadi Zamrani, and area in the vicinity of Flita-Arsal.
He and his brigade have been living in Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town close to the border that is hosting around 100,000 Syrian refugees.
In the wake of enormous victories in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) last month, Fajr al-Islam released a YouTube video pledging their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader. The NNA reported Saturday that, according to an LAF Orientation Directorate statement, Jomaa “confessed to belonging to the Nusra Front.” However, sources denied this, and Nusra Front Sunday confirmed via Twitter that Jomaa was not part of their group. Jomaa was caught at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Arsal at midday Saturday, according to the Army statement, with NNA reporting that he had been “injured during recent battles and was being transported to a hospital in the vicinity.” But the source refuted this, saying he had merely been accompanying someone else who was injured. Either way, within hours of his arrest, Islamist militants dressed head to toe in black had spread throughout the town and had begun their campaign of attacks against the Lebanese Army. The source said Fajr al-Islam members were among them. Speaking Sunday at a news conference, Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi denied that the attacks began due to Jomaa’s detention, but rather were “planned a long time ago, [with the militants] waiting for the appropriate time, which came during the last 48 hours.”The Army said Jomaa had been handed over to the relevant authorities for further investigation.