The US plans to send the Lebanese Army additional supplies of Hellfire missiles and other munitions and equipment to help it fight well-armed Sunni militants in the remote mountains of east Lebanon, diplomats and analysts say.
The weapons request, supported by a $1 billion donation from Saudi Arabia, comes as Lebanon's Army absorbs the lessons of a battle earlier this month in the border town of Arsal. The town was attacked by several hundred members of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and other Syrian rebel factions.
More clashes could be imminent: The battle for Arsal ended inconclusively and hundreds of jihadis are holed up in the mountains. “It was a very close-run thing. They [the Army] very nearly got routed,” says a Western diplomat in Beirut who closely followed the fighting.
In Lebanon, where a mosaic of faiths and sects coexist, the Syrian conflict has already inflamed divisions, and the clashes in Arsal could mark another escalation. For Lebanon's Army, a multi-faith force that is traditionally regarded as a guarantor of national stability, it was its most serious battle since 2007.
Arsal, a Sunni community, is a bedrock of support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some residents have joined the rebels, while others are providing weapons and medical services. The town’s population of some 38,000 has tripled over the past two years as more Syrians flee the fighting across the nearby border.
At least 19 soldiers and policemen were killed in the fighting along with 16 civilians and dozens of Sunni militants, according to the Lebanese Army and news reports. More than 30 soldiers and policemen were captured by the militants and are being held hostage.
Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime, is also attempting to push the rebels from the mountains adjacent to the Qalamoun region of Syria and box them into a kill zone near Arsal. Sources close to Hezbollah say the Iran-backed Shiite group is determined to wipe out the rebels, some of whom fight for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, though most belong to Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Lebanese Army wasn't seeking a confrontation with the militants and had taken up defensive positions in Arsal and other parts of the Bekaa valley. But on Aug. 2, the battle came to the Army after it arrested Imad Jumaa, a top commander of Jabhat al-Nusra, who was on a reconnaissance mission to Arsal. When the Army refused to release him, about 500 to 750 militants driving quad bikes and pick-ups mounted with 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns assaulted the town.
Some Lebanese Army posts held out against the onslaught, but at the headquarters on the western edge of Arsal the battalion commander and his deputy were killed and the base was overrun. The militants seized large amounts of ammunition and weapons, including six M-113 armored personnel carriers (APC), heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The Army had to send in special forces to check the militants' offensive. Despite heavy rocket and artillery fire from the Army, militants held their ground, and even tried to outflank the Army and attack Ras Baalbek, a nearby Christian village. According to diplomatic sources, that side assault was abandoned when they encountered two recently built Army positions on the mountain pass to Ras Baalbek. Negotiations ended the fighting, and militants escaped to the mountains, along with their hostages.
Arsal was the most serious battle fought by the Lebanese army since 2007, when 168 soldiers died during a three-month confrontation against Al Qaeda-inspired militants in a Palestinian refugee camp.
The army deployed two US-supplied Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft in Arsal, one of which was armed with Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles that destroyed three of the six captured APCs. Diplomatic sources say that the US is willing to expedite the transfer of more Hellfire missiles to the army, anticipating further clashes.
“I think they [the Army] were just not ready in terms of their net assessment of the organizational structure and sheer ferocity of the guys they were fighting against,” says Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC and a specialist on the Lebanese Army. “But after that [opening attack] you had very little in terms of attrition casualties… You are looking at a military that performed very well under difficult conditions.”
Negotiations are under way to secure the release of the nearly three dozen hostages held by the militants. The militants are reportedly demanding the release not only of Jumaa, the commander whose arrest sparked the battle, but also other jihadis incarcerated in Lebanon’s main prison.
Lebanese troops have reinforced the Arsal area and stationed a battery of 155mm artillery guns, their barrels pointing east, in a field near the Shiite village of Labwe.
Trouble for Arsal
In Arsal, residents are waiting for the other shoe to drop. There are fears that if hostage negotiations fail, fighting could flare again.
“Many people here support the [Syrian] rebels but we are tired of the fighting. We want the Lebanese Army to come here and calm the situation,” says Abu Omar, a Syrian rebel supporter.
The ordeal for two of the captured policemen ended Sunday with their release. In Fakehe, a village north of Arsal, family and friends flung handfuls of rice and rose petals to welcome back one of the cops, Kamal Maslamani.
“It’s the happiest day for me,” says Raghida Maslamani, Kamal’s sister.
A reporter asked the smiling but dazed-looking policeman how he was treated by his captors. Before he could speak, an intelligence officer standing beside him, mindful of the ongoing negotiations to release the remaining hostages, answered for him. “He was kept in a comfortable, secure and safe place," he says.