Free passage for ISIS: Was Hezbollah-backed deal a jab at Lebanese Army?

The free-passage deal that sent ISIS fighters and their families from Lebanon across Syria sparked outrage in Iraq and the US. It also raised suspicions that Hezbollah had deliberately snatched battlefield glory from the Lebanese Army.

Nicholas Blanford
Lebanese soldiers deployed in mountains east of Ras Baalbek in northeast Lebanon close to the border with Syria Aug. 28 at the culmination of a campaign to drive Islamic State militants out of Lebanon.

On the distant skyline of Tallet Qarah, an imposing mountain of barren limestone studded with a handful of juniper trees in northeast Lebanon, a small convoy of pick-up trucks and jeeps, windows flashing in the brilliant sunshine, crawled over the ridge and into neighboring Syria.

The vehicles were carrying the last of the several hundred Islamic State (ISIS) militants who for more than three years controlled a swathe of desolate mountains in this corner of Lebanon.

Their departure marked the culmination of a week-long offensive by the Lebanese Army to remove the extremist group from Lebanese soil. But its climax saw the surviving militants allowed to leave Lebanon and an adjacent area of Syria under a controversial cease-fire deal brokered by the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah organization.

In exchange for the safe passage of some 300 militants and their families to eastern Syria, ISIS agreed to reveal the locations where nine Lebanese soldiers, captured by ISIS in 2014 and subsequently executed, were buried. Harsh reactions to the deal came from several quarters, including Iraq, which said the ISIS militants should have been killed on the battlefield, rather than given safe transport to the Syria-Iraq border, as well as Christian Lebanese critics of Hezbollah, who voiced suspicions about the Shiite group’s motives. US military officials involved in the battle against ISIS also decried the safe-passage agreement.

The cease-fire deal marred what is otherwise being hailed as the Lebanese Army’s most successful and efficient military operation in more than two decades, and it underlines the complex relationship of simmering rivalry and awkward coordination that exists between the national army and Hezbollah, itself a powerful military force.

Lebanon is a tiny country, barely two thirds the size of Connecticut, with a complex sectarian power-sharing system of compromises and quid pro quos to help maintain communal peace. The balance between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah is a component of this fragile system. Over the past decade, as both Hezbollah and the Army have grown stronger, the two entities have jostled uneasily to find a means of accommodating each other.

Military aid in question

The Army is the recipient of substantial military assistance in terms of weapons, equipment, and training from the US and other countries. The US alone has delivered $1.5 billion in assistance since 2005. But Hezbollah refuses to surrender its weapons and has long maintained that only its doctrine of warfare is suitable to defend the country against external threats.

Critics ask what is the point of maintaining military aid to Lebanon if Hezbollah remains the strongest force in the country. The military’s defenders, however, say that the recent defeat of ISIS in northern Lebanon shows the support program for the Lebanese Army is working and should be increased.

“Rather than viewing external military aid to Lebanon as a waste of time, the [Lebanese Army] has proven itself as one of the few positive returns on investment when it comes to how countries like the US can credibly support representative military partners in the Middle East,” says Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Israel, however, has repeatedly accused the Lebanese Army of collaborating with Hezbollah. Last week, Israel told the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, that a Lebanese major serving in the south was in fact a “liaison officer” for Hezbollah and demanded his removal.

“Hezbollah is planning for the next military campaign against Israel and is using officers in the Lebanese Army as terror operatives who help it against the IDF [Israel Defense Force] along the border,” Dany Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador, said last week.

The Army denied the accusation, accusing Israel of “fabricated reports” and maintaining that it worked only with UNIFIL in south Lebanon.

Still, Hezbollah has a large level of support in Lebanon and it should come as no surprise that some in the Army will endorse the party’s anti-Israel credo. On the other hand, there are officers and soldiers that bristle at Hezbollah’s military and political power and are uncomfortable with sharing responsibilities of national defense with a non-state actor.

The recent battles in northeast Lebanon against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham (JFS), formerly Al Qaeda’s representative in Syria, illustrate this point. The two factions have controlled territory to the east of the Sunni town of Arsal and the Christian village of Ras Baalbek since 2014.

Army left on the sidelines

Earlier this year, speculation mounted that the Lebanese Army was preparing an offensive to drive the militants out of Lebanon once and for all. It would be an opportunity for the military to showcase its new capabilities and armaments after a decade of international support. But it was Hezbollah that took the lead, launching an attack in mid-July against JFS positions east of Arsal. Amid a blaze of publicity, Hezbollah’s battle-hardened fighters seized mountain-top after mountain-top, and drove the survivors out of Lebanon in just a week.

The Lebanese Army was left on the sidelines, looking on as Hezbollah scored a battlefield triumph. Critics of Hezbollah accused it of deliberately upstaging the Army, noting that the launch of the offensive coincided with a trip to Washington by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who was attempting to persuade the US to uphold the military assistance program.

Eyes turned toward ISIS which was deployed across the mountainous Lebanon-Syria border.

The Lebanese Army launched its own offensive against ISIS east of Ras Baalbek Aug. 20 with a careful announcement that it would not coordinate its campaign with Hezbollah or the Syrian military. But Hezbollah simultaneously declared its own battle against ISIS from the Syrian side of the border, creating a perception that the two-pronged attack was coordinated. In the days that followed, media outlets close to Hezbollah hammered home the impression that the battle was a joint affair, while the Lebanese Army, with an eye on Washington, insisted it was fighting unilaterally.

After only four days, the army had broken the back of the ISIS militants, using laser-guided artillery munitions, air power, and ground troop maneuvers to force the survivors into retreating to a valley on the border. The offensive was the most complex and successful carried out by the Lebanese Army in decades.

“By all credible accounts, unity of command, speed, coordination, precision and professionalism of the LAF have borne themselves out on the battlefield, amounting to what one foreign military official described to me as ‘21st century maneuver warfare by a modern military,’” says Mr. Nerguizian.

Accusations against Hezbollah

But as the Lebanese Army closed in for the kill, Hezbollah announced it had struck a deal with ISIS that allowed the trapped militants to escape death or capture and instead travel in a convoy of buses to the Syria-Iraq border.

Mr. Hariri, the prime minister, justified the decision as having spared the Army further loss of life and ensured the return of the bodies of nine Lebanese soldiers executed by the militants. But it also provoked accusations that Hezbollah had deliberately upstaged the Army in its moment of triumph to convey the impression that the Army alone cannot defend Lebanon against external threats. There is also widespread unhappiness that the ISIS militants have been allowed to escape justice.

“Hezbollah’s stance toward the [ISIS] convoy is surprising, abnormal and bizarre, and it raises questions, doubts, and suspicions,” Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that opposes Hezbollah, tweeted over the weekend.

Even Shiite-populated areas, where support runs high for Hezbollah, have been dismayed that the ISIS militants were allowed to flee. These areas in recent years have been battered by suicide bombings and rocket attacks perpetrated by ISIS and other like-minded groups.

While both the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah have claimed a share of the glory in ridding Lebanon of ISIS and JFS, the question of how these two militaries will continue to live with each other remains unresolved.

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