Lebanese Army erects towers on northern border to repel terrorist attacks

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 Lebanese Army erects towers on northern border to repel terrorist attacks
Nicholas Blanford/The Daily Star/Dec. 01, 2014

RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon: A thin red line of defense is emerging along Lebanon’s northern border as the Lebanese Army builds a series of fortified watchtowers to help check the spillover from Syria’s civil war, including the threat posed by extremist militants holed up in mountains east of Arsal.

The United Kingdom-funded project, which began in 2011, also includes equipping and training the Army’s Land Border Regiments which are tasked specifically with securing the porous frontier with Syria. Since last year, the British government has approved around $30 million for the “train and equip” program for the two Land Border Regiments. A third Land Border Regiment is currently being raised.

“The U.K. project is of great importance because it has allowed the state to be present along 50 percent of the border with Syria where the government had not been present for many years,” said Brig. Gen. Maroun Hitti, the Army’s director of planning.

Lebanon’s tiny size means it has little “strategic depth,” Hitti added, which is why defending the border is of such critical importance.

“A few kilometers inside Lebanon is like a thousand kilometers in Russia. There are only a few kilometers separating the border [with Syria] from the border villages,” he said.

Although the U.K. has provided assistance to the Lebanese Army since 2006, the border project arose from a conversation in October 2011 between then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his British counterpart, David Cameron. Asked by Cameron what he needed to help maintain stability in Lebanon, Mikati replied that securing the border was a priority given the worsening violence in Syria at the time.

“Since the beginning of my mandate in 2011, the risks of spillover from the Syria crisis brought a new security challenge, which triggered the urgent need to upgrade our response,” Mikati said in a statement. “The cooperation with the U.K., driven by [British] Ambassador [Tom] Fletcher, was pivotal for our ability to defend our borders against these new threats.”

Those threats are nowhere more apparent than in the rugged barren mountainous terrain of northeast Lebanon. The Army has built 12 watchtowers so far, four of them along the northeast border between Namaat, east of Masharih al-Qaa, and Aaqabet al-Jourd, a hill 3 kilometers south of Arsal.

A small group of reporters boarded an Army helicopter at the Defense Ministry in Yarze Saturday and headed to Ras Baalbek in the northern Bekaa, a flight that skimmed over pine trees and rooftops, crossed yawning rocky valleys and the snow-capped ridge near Majdal Tarshish before descending and barreling along at around 50 meters above the flat plain of the Bekaa Valley.

Ras Baalbek is home to the headquarters of the 2nd Land Border Regiment, which operates the watchtowers in the northern Bekaa. In the soaring beige mountains to the east, dusted with snow from the recent storm, are some of an estimated 3,000-strong force of mainly Syrian militants, including the extremist ISIS and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

On Aug. 2, a combined force of some 700 militants attacked and overran Arsal, sparking some of the bloodiest fighting since the 2007 battle in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. When the militants withdrew as part of a cease-fire agreement five days later, they took with them more than 30 captured soldiers and policemen and a large quantity of looted arms and ammunition. However, the assault on Arsal could have had much graver consequences.

Another group of militants split from the main force to launch an attack on Ras Baalbek, 8 kilometers north of Arsal. The attack ground to a halt when the militants stumbled across a watchtower, Tower 10, on a small hill at the entrance to a serpentine valley that leads directly to Ras Baalbek, 3 kilometers to the west. Construction on the fortified base and watchtower had only ended days earlier and apparently the militants were unaware it existed. If the attack on Ras Baalbek had been successful, it would greatly have inflamed tensions across the country.

“The Lebanese Army took a hit [in Arsal], but they held the line and I’m sure that U.K. training and the towers was part of that,” said Fletcher, the British envoy.

Still, since August, there has been a steady rate of attacks in the Ras Baalbek-Arsal area, much of it unreported. Militants probe the Army defenses at night by firing heavy machine guns at the towers or attempt to plant roadside bombs on patrol routes. A 20 kilogram roadside bomb was discovered by an Army patrol Saturday morning alongside a track leading to Tower 12, under construction at Aaqabet al-Jourd. An anti-tank mine also was uncovered nearby.

“We have every day some troubles. When they come to us, we shoot at them,” said Brig. Gen. Ali Murad, the commander of the 2nd Land Border Regiment. Murad added that the situation was generally calm for now, but assessed that the onset of winter could force the militants in the mountains to attempt to move closer to Arsal, bringing them into contact with the Army.

“If any terrorists try to come here with a big number of people we can repel them,” he said.

As a convoy of Army vehicles headed east from Ras Baalbek, Murad received a call that seven potentially armed men had been spotted in the craggy heights above the valley leading to Tower 10. The convoy halted while two Humvees with machine gunners raced ahead to check. It later turned out that the men, who were armed, were likely members of Ras Baalbek’s local civilian defense force on patrol.

Tower 10 is an imposing bastion with sweeping views over an expanse of flat ground leading to the hills and mountains to the east. It is protected by two levels of Hesco blast barriers, huge boxes each packed with 20 tons of earth and rock. The soldiers manned firing positions along the walls. In front of the base were 81mm mortar pits and two armored personnel carriers mounted with 23mm and 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns.

“We are attacked about once a week here,” said 1st Lieutenant Hasan Dirani, the base commander. He added that he was doubtful the militants would attempt another assault on Ras Baalbek.

“We are strong and ready for them and they know that we are here,” he said.

Observation is carried out from a cramped room at the top of a fortified tower. Long-range reconnaissance cameras with night-vision capabilities constantly scan the surrounding landscape. The British government has also provided the Lebanese Army with several mobile observation platforms which can be towed to hilltops for temporary reconnaissance missions. Visible 6 kilometers to the south of Tower 10 is Tower 11, a squat square dimple on a hill above Arsal.

The goal is to build towers down the entire length of Lebanon’s eastern border to Shebaa on the edge of the UNIFIL area of operations. The next phase of tower installation will be between Arsal and Masnaa which will become the operational area of the new 3rd Land Border Regiment.