BEIRUT: Lebanon will turn the page on the armed presence of militants formerly affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the next few days, while the Lebanese Army prepares for a possible battle to evict another militant group, Daesh (ISIS), from the country.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Nusra Front, finally raised the white flag after five days of fierce fighting with Hezbollah in the outskirts of Arsal, agreeing to a cease-fire that went into effect Thursday to pave the way for its retreat into Syria.
With the details of Fatah al-Sham’s withdrawal still being worked out, the spotlight is set to shift to a border enclave controlled by few hundred Daesh militants, the last remaining vestige of terrorism threatening Lebanon’s border security. The Army has sent troops to areas bordering Daesh-controlled regions adjacent to the towns of Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbeck, from where it will be poised to assault Daesh’s positions if an ongoing mediation effort to allow them to leave in return for clear information on kidnapped servicemen fails.
Any all-out offensive against Daesh would be launched to defend Lebanon, but also to avenge terrorist attacks carried out by Daesh, which have often targeted the Army.A security source told The Daily Star that General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim held talks in preparation for the deal that would allow Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters safe passage to Syria, along with their families.
The cease-fire went into effect at 6 a.m. Thursday morning and had only been agreed on the night before.
According to a security source, the cease-fire agreement included return of five captured Hezbollah fighters to Lebanon, the dismantling of the Wadi Hmayyed Syrian refugee encampment and its handover to the Army, in addition to the transport of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters and their families to the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
After meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri upon his return from Syria Thursday, Ibrahim said that the cease-fire was holding. “The return of militants and [civilians] who wish to go back to Syria’s Idlib will take place under the surveillance of the Lebanese authorities, and the logistics will be overseen by the Lebanese Red Cross,” Ibrahim said. “This is a victory for Lebanon and the Lebanese.”
Ibrahim also met with President Michel Aoun and briefed him on the latest security developments on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Separately, Ibrahim met Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun. The two discussed the ongoing security situation.
The Hezbollah-run War Media Center reported that Hezbollah fighters entered Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s largest operations rooms. Soldiers abducted in 2014 by the then-Nusra Front and Daesh are believed to have been held in that very same compound.
Arsal was briefly overrun by the militants in 2014, resulting in the capture of some 30 security servicemen. Although most of the hostages have been released, the fate of nine Army soldiers remains unknown.
The WMC reported Hezbollah fighters had uncovered a mass grave of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters who had died in clashes on the outskirts of Arsal.
The Army seized positions near the towns of Ras Baalbeck and Al-Qaa, where troops are expected to imminently launch attacks against Daesh, a security source told The Daily Star.
If the fate of the missing soldiers is not discovered, “the Army will raid the Daesh posts and initiate an all-out battle,” the source added.
The Army is also reinforcing positions around Al-Qaa to prevent incursions by militants further into Lebanon.
“God willing, what we want is an end to what is happening in Arsal,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri told reporters from Washington, where he is on an official visit. “I don’t think anyone from the Lebanese government wants there to be this type of terrorism in the outskirts of Arsal. The best course [of action] is for them to return to their country.”
Following a meeting with President Aoun, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk refused to go into details about the developments happening in Arsal, stressing that because the Syrian-Lebanese border is not demarcated, the issue cannot be deliberated. “This is disputed land, and each political side has an opinion of it,” he said during a news conference. “All what we are saying is that the Army does not need a Cabinet decision, as the Army is constantly on assignment, what is happening in the hills of Arsal is going on in disputed land and we cannot discuss it.”
Future Movement Secretary-General Ahmad Hariri toured Arsal, representing the premier. “We came to confirm to Arsal that it is not alone,” he said during a news conference from the area. “Arsal is the base of our resilience and message of nationalism and moderation.”