As President Barack Obama girds the nation for a new military campaign against the Islamic State, tiny Lebanon is already battling the group in the mountains flanking its border with Syria.
In a little noticed sideshow to the well-publicized battles against IS in Iraq and Syria, the past month has seen Lebanese Army and Shiite fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah arrayed against militants from IS and other Sunni jihadi groups in the barren, rugged mountains near Arsal in the northern Bekaa Valley.
The fighting, which intensified in early August, has dominated the political agenda in Lebanon, a country of four million that is struggling with an influx of more than one million displaced Syrians. Sunni militants abducted more than 30 Shiite and Christian Lebanese soldiers and policemen, further inflaming already strained sectarian tensions here. Two of the hostages held by ISIS have been beheaded, sparking reprisal attacks and kidnappings against Syrian refugees.
Speaking on Tuesday, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, cited IS aggression in Lebanon in rallying support for global efforts to confront the militants. “And it’s our responsibility as an international community to join in solidarity with Lebanon as it now deals with … what are becoming innumerable manifestations of the terror inflicted by [IS],” she said.
A few thousand Syrian militants are holed up in mountainous terrain in northeast Lebanon, adjacent to Syria’s Qalamoun region north of Damascus, where Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters are fighting the armed Syrian opposition. On August 2, IS and its allies overran Arsal, a Sunni town that has seen a flood of Syrian refugees. Militants killed 19 soldiers in several days of fighting before withdrawing back to the mountains with captured soldiers and policemen split between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
ISIS has threatened to murder more hostages if its demands, which reportedly include the release of dozens of Sunni jihadis held in Lebanese jails, are not met. Messages on social media accounts connected to IS and Jabhat al-Nusra have also called for Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, where its fighters are playing a key role in defending the Assad regime.
Some of the hostages have made video-taped appeals, calling on the Lebanese government to meet their captors' demands and urging their families to agitate for their release. So far the government has ruled out freeing militants from jail as part of a hostage exchange, although it has said it will expedite trials of those accused of terrorism or rebellion.
A senior Lebanese delegation is due to travel to Qatar to seek its mediation in the hostage crisis. Qatar was a key go-between in negotiations that led last month to the release by Jabhat al-Nusra of American freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis.
Jibran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister, was in Saudi Arabia today to attend a regional meeting which included Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss means of confronting IS. Mr. Bassil told France’s Le Figaro newspaper on Wednesday that the fight against IS was “a battle of humanity against monsters."
Sporadic clashes have continued in the Arsal area. On Tuesday, Lebanese troops captured a strategic hill, cutting off the militants from fresh supplies in Arsal. The Syrian military has also staged airstrikes against Syrian militants inside Lebanon.
Two Sunni residents of Arsal were freed today after being kidnapped three days earlier by Shiite gunmen from a family of one of the hostages. The two men were turned over to a senior Hezbollah official who condemned “irresponsible” sectarian rhetoric.
Sources close to Hezbollah say that regardless of the outcome of the hostage negotiations, the Shiite party is planning to “wipe out” the Syrian rebels in the Arsal area.
“They cannot be allowed to stay on Lebanese soil and terrorize the people. They will not be allowed to escape. We will finish them once and for all,” says a former fighter with Hezbollah from the Bekaa Valley who asked not to be identified.
Still, Hezbollah, which remains the region's most effective non-state military group, has suffered significant casualties against IS's combat-hardened militants. Today, four more Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed in clashes near Ras Baalbek, a Christian village five miles north of Arsal.
The militants' presence have unnerved Lebanese across the country, especially Christians living in close proximity. In Ras Baalbek and other nearby villages, residents have formed local militias to guard against the risk that IS could penetrate more populated areas of the northern Bekaa. Lebanon's media carries near daily reports of Christians arming themselves and other militias training in remote mountain areas.
As Lebanese seek to arm themselves, weapons dealers are cashing in: An AK-47 rifle today costs around $2,150, double the price of three years ago, and an American M4 assault rifle with an attached 40mm grenade launcher fetches a cool $17,000.
“When there is war, the prices go up. When there is calm, the prices go down. It’s that simple,” says Abu Rida, a black market arms dealer in southern Beirut.