by Isabel Nassief, Logan Brog, and Alexander Orleans
Key takeaway: ISIS resurgence in Iraq has had security implications in Lebanon. Renewed operations by Syrian rebels in the Qalamoun region could increase spillover of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon and revive rebel groups’ ability to attack Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. The mobilization of Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon in response to ISIS success in Iraq is also possible. However, joint operations between Hezbollah and Lebanese security forces have thus far been successful in mitigating these threats.
In early 2014, a spate of car bombs connected to Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS targeted Hezbollah strongholds in retaliation for Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict. In response, the Lebanese security forces conducted operations in Tripoli and the Beqaa valley which were largely successful in cracking down on extremist networks that were facilitating and conducting these attacks. On June 20, a thwarted assassination attempt and a suicide car bomb on the Beirut-Damascus highway disrupted a period of relative calm, underscoring the potential security implications of ISIS resurgence in Iraq for Lebanon.
As ISIS continues operations in Iraq, the redeployment of Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters from Iraq to Syria has exacerbated the regime’s manpower limitations, allowing Syrian rebels to renew offensive operations in the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Increased border instability and the potential for Qalamoun to reemerge as a staging ground could give way to renewed attacks against Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. The mobilization of Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon in response to ISIS success in Iraq is another possible security threat.
In the weeks following the seizure of Mosul, Hezbollah and the Lebanese security forces launched a number of joint preventative operations, to tighten security in Beirut, the Dahiyeh, the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Helweh, and in the border towns of Arsal and Tfeil. In the coming weeks these measures may also extend to curb potential activity in Tripoli and the northern district of Wadi Khaled and to protect other Hezbollah strongholds throughout the Beqaa Valley such as Hermel. Despite the upset caused by the attempted attack on June 20, operations between Hezbollah and Lebanese security forces thus far appear to have been effective in mitigating the risks posed by ISIS expansion in Iraq. With the exception of major gains by Syrian opposition groups in Qalamoun, it is unlikely that events in Iraq will cause a major escalation of kinetic activity in Lebanon.
See below for a breakdown of events in Lebanon following the seizure of Mosul:
Renewed Attacks on June 20:
Suicide Car Bombing at the Dahr el Baidar Checkpoint
A car bombed detonated at the Dahr el Baidar checkpoint in the Beqaa valley on June 20. Originally the car was headed to Beirut along the Beirut-Chtaura highway before turning around and fleeing eastward when the Internal Security Forces (ISF) attempted to stop the car. The explosion killed one ISF member and injuring 33 other individuals. Moments prior to the detonation, the convoy of Director-General of the Directorate of General Security (DGS) Major General Abbas Ibrahim passed through the checkpoint, making the bombing a possible assassination attempt. Notably, General Abbas oversaw the operations in Tripoli which forced radical sheikh Ahmad Assir into hiding in the summer of 2013.The Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade later claimed responsibility for the bombing, “vowing to reach the initial target of the attack in the future.” The Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade is a Sunni extremist group, best known for claiming responsibility for the assassination of senior Hezbollah operative Hassan al-Laqis in December 2013. The group claimed allegiance to ISIS via its twitter account. ISIS Damascus twitter account, however, refuted the allegiance.
ISF Chief, General Ibrahim Basbous, later stated that the vehicle had been heading for Beirut which, combined with the fact that the vehicle was apparently fleeing from ISF troops west of the checkpoint, casts some doubt on the idea that Maj. Gen. Ibrahim was being targeted. Ibrahim claimed that the bombing was “connected” to a thwarted operation aimed at assassinating Shi’a leader and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri in Beirut on the same day (see below). If Nabih Berri was the target of this attack it would fall in line with previous car bomb attacks in Lebanon primarily targeted pro-Hezbollah, Shi’a neighborhoods and towns in Lebanon.
Disrupted Plot Targeting Nabih Berri
Approximately 200 ISF and DGS officers arrested 102 individuals from two hotels in the Hamra district of Beirut. Security forces subsequently released 98 people while retaining 4 men for further investigation with regard to an assassination plot against Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament and head of the Amal movement, Lebanon’s second-largest Shi’a political party. The Amal conference at the UNESCO Palace, where Berri was due to speak, was canceled prior to the raids. The arrested men are suspected of being part of a Beirut-based cell affiliated with ISIS.
As a result, security in Lebanon has tightened significantly. In Beirut a number of roads were closed by security forces, including the airport road. Security forces also closed off the Beirut-Damascus highway at the Dahr el Baidar and the Tripoli-Akkar highway, and erected a checkpoint at the entrance of the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon. Lastly, strict security measures were implemented around Ain-al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon after reports that several wanted fugitives had managed to escape the camp.
Prior Responses in Lebanon to ISIS operations in Iraq:
Kinetic Activity on the Lebanese-Syrian Border
In the last couple weeks, Syrian opposition fighters have renewed their Qalamoun offensive. The rebel offensive was likely bolstered by the departure of Shi’a militia members returning to Iraq from Syria, where they plan to fight a resurgent ISIS. Hezbollah is reportedly dispatching militants from Lebanon to replace pro-government fighters now in Iraq, but recent rebel gains in Syria indicate that Hezbollah is mobilizing quickly enough to replace Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters that have returned to Iraq from Syria.
Tfeil, a Lebanese border town in the Beqaa Governorate that is almost completely surrounded by Syrian territory, is a flashpoint in Lebanon. Most Tfeil residents evacuated the area for Arsal and other locations in eastern Lebanon. On June 17, Sunni rebels clashed with Hezbollah just kilometers away in Syria. By June 18, Hezbollah was reportedly clashing with residents of Tfeil because of the village’s strategic value near contested towns in the Qalamoun. During the last Qalamoun offensive in April 2014, residents went months without basic necessities because fighting made accessing the town impossible. Fresh fighting in Tfeil indicates that the void filled by fighters leaving Syria for Iraq is having direct impacts on towns along the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The most significant LAF activity since the fall of Mosul has been an increased, and ongoing, presence in the Arsal area of the northeastern Beqaa Valley. Arsal, a town known as major transit point for smuggling and Syrian opposition activity, has experienced a series of armed incidents and kidnappings over the last three weeks – some of which have allegedly involved elements of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). In response to the increasing tempo of incidents and potential for violence in the aftermath of the ISIS advance in Iraq, the LAF began a series of search operations on 13 June aimed at rooting out wanted individuals and gunmen, and serving as a broad scope, preemptive action to prevent any escalation of violence. Within the first day, five to six Syrian nationals were arrested for connections to multiple Sunni terrorist organizations. By 14 June, LAF operations were stepping up all along the Syrian border, as reports indicated possible Abdullah Azzam Brigade sleeper cell activity. Border security intensifications included the deployment of two additional helicopter gunships to the area. As of 19 June, the LAF presence has expanded geographically as part of an effort to maintain stability in the eastern regions of the Beqaa. Throughout the operation, the LAF have cooperated with Hezbollah forces in the area. To date, the only reported casualty has been the wounding of an Arsal resident by LAF fire.
Lebanese Hezbollah’s Response to the Iraq Crisis
Since the fall of Mosul, many have been watching Lebanese Hezbollah with interest to see how it responds to the looming threat ISIS poses to Shia holy sites in Iraq and to the Iran-Iraq border.
- June 12: Hezbollah called for a general mobilization of 1000 fighters in Lebanon to be sent to the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine in Damascus, to replace Shia Iraqi militia troops who were returning to Iraq.
- June 13: The next day, MP Walid Sakariya of Hezbollah’s Loyalty to Resistance bloc said that Iraq "is bigger than the capabilities of [Hezbollah]" and that Hezbollah would not be involved in operations within Iraq.
- June 16: Hezbollah established a “military operations room” in Beirut to monitor ISIS movements, Shi’a mobilization, and Iraqi security.
- June 17: Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah gave a public address, saying “had [Hezbollah] not intervened in Syria…ISIS would be in Beirut now”. Sources close to Nasrallah claim he continued off-the-record, saying “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [the holy sites in Syria].”
The most pressing question remains whether or not Hezbollah will commit fighters directly to the Iraqi conflict, or just increase its presence in Syria to fill gaps left behind by departing Iraqi Shi’a militias. Given current information, the most likely scenario seems that Hezbollah will mobilize to backstop in Syria, while also sending some of its better trained officers to act as advisors to forces defending Shi’a holy sites in Iraq. However, recent gains by Syrian rebel groups, particularly in Damascus and Qalamoun, may suggest that Hezbollah recruitment to replenish the redeployed Iraqi Shi’a militants are either insufficient or not occurring quickly enough.
Joint LAF-Hezbollah Operations in Beirut
As the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated and concerns of spillover violence have risen, cooperation between the LAF and Lebanese Hezbollah has increased as both work to ensure the security of Beirut. On 10 June, the LAF began implementing a large-scale security plan in the Beirut’s southern suburbs, aimed at preventing further suicide and car bombings like those which targeted the largely pro-Hezbollah area earlier this spring. The commencement of the operation happened to coincide with the ISIS seizure of Mosul. Further deployments in Beirut, however, were likely in response to ISIS Iraq operations, as Lebanese actors fear a resurgence of extremist attacks in Lebanon.
On 17 June, Hezbollah received information of specific threats against the Rasoul al-Aazam and Behman hospitals in the Dahiyeh. In response, the LAF and Hezbollah conducted a joint, preemptive deployment to the area and installed additional checkpoints and concrete barriers. On 20 June, the ISF arrested four individuals suspected of taking part in an Abdullah Azzam Brigade (AAB) plot targeting hospitals in the Dahiyeh. Also on 17 June, a previously undiscovered Lebanese Civil War-era tunnel was found between the Burj al-Barajneh and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in the Dahiyeh, prompting messages of concern from both Hezbollah and the Interior Ministry. Fatah later denied ever using the tunnel.
Mobilization in Palestinian Refugee Camps
Palestinian militant groups in the Ain al-Helweh refugee camp near Sidon agreed to create and deploy a “shared security force” to prevent increased extremist militant activity in response to ISIS advances in Iraq. The new force will coordinate with the Lebanese Armed Forces and is set to be operational within two weeks, though its implementation has been planned and delayed before. The Lebanese Armed Forces have been unable to operate within Palestinian refugee camps since 1969, when the Cairo Afford granted Palestinian organizations sovereignty over Palestinian refugee camps. Radical groups, including the AAB and foreign elements, including Syrians and Chechens, took refuge in Ain al-Helweh earlier this year to organize and plan attacks. Palestinian refugee camps, especially those with dense concentrations of radical elements, remain a major potential flashpoint if regional sectarian tensions flare in response to the crisis in Iraq. In particular, a large Hezbollah intervention in Iraq could prompt extremist groups operating within the camps to attack symbols of Shi’a power within Lebanon.