Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Syrian Fallout in Lebanon

"When it's light out and we're looking down from these positions and see groups in the mountains, we fire at any target we see."
"We can go in sometimes [into the Lebanese town of Arsal], but if we go in too often they will remember us and plant a bomb under our car."
"We obey international law, so we can't just go in and kill them all, because we can't afford the legal consequences."
"It's like a border now. A buffer zone. Anyone who wants to leave should be checked. If you're an illegal refugee you can sty here, but  you can't cross further into Lebanon."
"[Relations with the townspeople] ... is excellent. They love that the army is here."
"They're [Islamic State fighters] all over the mountains. These natural shelters are what make it so hard to root them out."
"When we have a good government in Syria we can communicate with, you can get them out very easily [getting rid of the presence of Islamic State]."
Col. Ahmed Assir, commander, Lebanese Army Ninth Infantry Brigade

"Whenever there's a security problem, they let it fester to the extent that the solution is to turn it into an enclave and close it off."
"What they don't understand is that by inflicting this exclusion on Arsal, it's creating lots of resentment in the population. It will sooner or later backfire."
Sahar Atrache, analyst, International Crisis Group
Islamic State fighters as well as al-Qaeda-linked Nusra militias descended out of the mountains above the town of Arsal and into the town of mostly Sunni Lebanese for a short-lived victory in 2014. The Lebanese Armed Forces responded in kind pushing the foreign Islamists out of the town, with thousands taking shelter in the town's outskirts and alternately finding refuge in caves and the naturally occurring redoubts of the mountains.

As the Islamists retreated they took with them 29 Lebanese police officers and soldiers, four of them soon executed and others still being held, years later. Lebanon's population has swelled with the influx of Syrian refugees. At first the country welcomed the Syrians fleeing the vicious assaults mounted against them by their country's Shiite president. Those assaults were aided by Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group representing Iran's interests in Syria. The entry of Sunni ISIL fighters into Lebanon might be viewed as a response to Hezbollah's defence of the Syrian regime in a sectarian conflict.
Lebanese army soldiers work on a 130mm howitzer cannon, pointed to areas controlled by the Islamic State group at the edge of the town of Arsal, on the Syrian border, in northeast Lebanon. The Lebanese army is fighting a war against the Islamic State and al-Qaida and has clawed significant territory back from the extremists. The fighting and shelling near the eastern border town of Arsal occur almost daily. Some 5,000 Lebanese soldiers are fighting against a dwindling number of militants. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Now, for every three Lebanese in the country there is one Syrian refugee. Lebanon is staggering under the weight of refugees. In a country already long divided by Christians, Druze, Shiites and Sunnis all in conflict with one another, and the addition of large numbers of Palestinian refugees, the country is further dissected and fraught with the huge presence of Syrian refugees. The international community has set aside funding to aid Lebanon in its coping strategies. France, the U.K. and the U.S. along with Canada are donors to Lebanon.

The town of Arsal originally housed 30,000 inhabitants. Now there are an additional 60,000 to 90,000 Syrian refugees to swell its population, with large masses of white refugee tents clustered everywhere around the town. The town's locals have become a minority in their own home town, and another reality rears its head; that among the refugees and posing as refugees themselves are jihadi fighters. In response to which the people of Arsal increasingly resent the presence of Syrians.

The municipality imposed a curfew whereby refugees had to remain inside between ten p.m. and seven a.m. The town is surrounded by five thousand Lebanese troops, effectively creating a siege situation. Army outposts are numerous and sandbagged barricades, tanks and artillery guns proliferate on the barren, rocky landscape. Militants and the Lebanese army exchange fire daily.  Col. Assir describes jihadists creeping within range of army positions to open fire with American-made TOW missiles or rocket-propelled grenades.
A Lebanese army soldier takes his position overlooking an area controlled by the Islamic State group at the edge of the town of Arsal, on the Syrian border, in northeast Lebanon.  (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The Lebanese Armed Forces have their work cut out for them in and around the town. Not only the jihadis remaining in the town's outskirts and those in the mountains, but they are aware that many more still remain among the local population in the town. Where Lebanese soldiers have homes in Arsal, they can be identified and are ripe for murder. They have taken to wearing balaclavas to ensure they cannot be recognized and become targets.

The military perimeter around Arsal enables them to mount intelligence networks hoping for warnings whenever an ISIL leader enters town so they can respond by raiding and making arrests. Those living in the town as normal residents or as refugees cannot come and go as they please. Because of the military surrounding the town both townspeople and refugees -- and terrorists among them -- are virtual prisoners, since access is limited and all within the town are stuck there.

Allegations of torture conducted by the army against Syrian and Lebanese terror suspects detained in Arsal have been remitted to Human Rights Watch. According to its local researcher, torture extracts false confessions used to convict in ensuing military trials. The Shiite Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, Iran's proxy militia, is an integrated part of the government, although their militias have refused to merge with the Lebanese military. It's quite conceivable that the combat-skilled Hezbollah could, if they felt obliged to rid Lebanon of Islamic State fighters, counter their presence.

On the other hand, Lebanon, already freighted with conflicts between its political, ethnic and religious/sectarian groups, would erupt into another tinder-box explosion of violent hatred and vicious conflict, upsetting the balance of each vested interest put to the test once again of setting aside political accommodation and succumbing to the passions of savage conflict, so familiar to the people of Lebanon.

Syrian refugee camps in the foreground, and the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border, in northeast Lebanon. The Lebanese army is fighting a war against the Islamic State and al-Qaida and has clawed significant territory back from the extremists. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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