by Logan Brog
Key Takeaway: The current battle for Arsal represents the most significant spillover from the Syrian civil war into Lebanese territory and threatens to exacerbate Lebanon’s sectarian tensions. Although Syrian rebel operations in Arsal do not constitute an offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the battle for Arsal demonstrates the potential for localized Syrian rebel groups to pledge support to ISIS in a bid for resources and notoriety, thereby expanding the reach of ISIS into Lebanon.
Battle for Arsal
For the first time, large-scale fighting from Syria has spilled into Lebanon. The Lebanese Armed Forces is currently battling rebels affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in and around Arsal, a Lebanese town 13 km west of the Syrian border in which a massive influx of refugees and rebels has long made the area a lawless enclave in a relatively weak state. This post examines the origins, significant actions, and key players involved in the battle for Arsal as well as the broader implications for Lebanese security.
As a result of the Syrian regime’s offensive to clear rebel strongholds along the Lebanese border since 2013, Syrian rebels and refugees have amassed in the Lebanese town of Arsal. The Syrian regime’s strategy of clearing and holding rebel strongholds has failed to destroy rebels in Qalamoun and has instead displaced these rebels into Arsal and surrounding areas. Arsal has therefore emerged as an important support zone for rebels in Syria, providing access to resources, reinforcements, and sanctuary. Increasingly, Arsal has functioned as a primary staging zone for rebels conducting reprisal attacks against Hezbollah targets within Lebanese territory. Rebel activity in Arsal therefore provides a shared strategic threat for the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime.
On June 10, Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Almost immediately, Iraqi Shi’a militiamen fighting alongside Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in Qalamoun returned to Iraq to secure Shi’a holy sites and Baghdad, requiring Hezbollah to deploy Lebanese fighters to fill their positions. As Hezbollah reinforcements trickled in, Syrian rebels revamped attacks against regime targets in the Qalamoun region in mid-June which had been largely uncontested in since April. The rebel offensive in Qalamoun has now spilled west of the porous Lebanon-Syria border, forcing the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to combat rebel groups which have pledged allegiance to ISIS as well as other Syrian rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra in Arsal.
In mid-July, the LAF announced the beginning of a “wide campaign” against militant activity in eastern Beqaa Governorate surrounding Arsal. On July 31, Hezbollah forces operating in the Qalamoun region closed the only major road connecting Arsal to Syria from the east, blocking the movement of people and goods between Arsal and Qalamoun. Meanwhile, the Syrian Air Force conducted airstrikes in Lebanese territory, targeting rebel positions in Wadi al-Ajram and az-Zamourani on July 31. Hezbollah also deployed troops to Shi’a towns west of Arsal, isolating rebels to a small area surrounded by Hezbollah fighters. This combination of movements by the LAF, Syrian regime, and Hezbollah forces suggests a coordinated, cross-border effort to isolate rebels in the town of Arsal. Coordination between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah is also confirmed in a video showing a convoy of Hezbollah vehicles passing through a LAF checkpoint en route to Arsal without being stopped or searched.
The Battle for Arsal began on August 2, when the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrested Imad Ahmed Joumaa at a checkpoint east of Arsal. Joumaa is a commander of Liwa Fajr al-Islam, a small Syrian rebel group that recently pledged allegiance to ISIS. Shortly after, masked gunmen, likely led by Joumaa’s men, entered residential areas of Arsal. The rebels then captured soldiers, overtook government services and security buildings, and attempted to gain control of large parts of Arsal and the plains that surround it. While this is consistent with an attempt to emulate ISIS’ strategy for attacking urban areas throughout Syria and Iraq, the decision to seize territory in Arsal was likely an attempt to push back against restrictions on rebel freedom-of-movement rather than an ideologically-driven campaign. The LAF deployed additional troops to the area and quickly mounted a counteroffensive, retaking infrastructure, clearing territory, and targeting rebel positions. The Syrian Air Force also bombed fighters from aircraft flying over Lebanese territory.
As of the time of publication, efforts to halt fighting appear to have succeeded. During a prior cease-fire on August 6, Jabhat al-Nusra elements withdrew from Arsal. ISIS-affiliated militants withdrew from Arsal across the Syrian border on August 7 as part of a different cease-fire agreement. Arsal’s large refugee population and significant strategic value make future rebel operations likely.
Syrian Rebel Groups in Lebanon
The exact identity and group composition of rebels fighting in Arsal is not discernable from available information, but those fighting likely include rebels who were led by Imad Ahmed Joumaa, who pledged support to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in a YouTube video posted on June 20. Jabhat al-Nusra is also involved in the fighting, initially claiming that it entered Arsal to give the population humanitarian support. Video evidence and local media reports, however, indicate that the group’s fighters are also involved in kinetic activity, including the kidnapping of Lebanese soldiers.
ISIS involvement in Arsal does not necessarily indicate a western expansion of ISIS territorial control or a decision from ISIS leadership to expand the Islamic State into Lebanese territory. There is no indication that ISIS leadership ordered, authorized, directly funded, or knew about plans to launch an offensive to take Arsal. ISIS elements in Qalamoun have had a cooperative relationship with local rebel groups in the past, many of which ISIS fights elsewhere in Syria. For example, despite a large scale offensive by Syrian rebel groups against ISIS fighters in northern Syria in early 2014, ISIS and other rebel groups continued to cooperate against regime forces in Qalamoun.
This dynamic likely extends to the Battle for Arsal. Local ISIS-identifying groups with decentralized decision-making may fight under the ISIS banner without coordinating with ISIS leadership in order to ride the tailwinds of recent ISIS victories and attract recruits and donors willing to fund expensive weapons purchases. Significantly, official ISIS twitter accounts have had limited coverage of the events in Arsal and have not claimed responsibility for the offensive.
The Battle for Arsal also demonstrates that even when operating without orders from ISIS command-and-control, armed groups fighting under the ISIS banner can have devastating consequences for states throughout the Middle East. ISIS may seek to capitalize on the future successes of small armed groups by directly governing the territories seized on its behalf, rewarding the small groups who fought with the black flag and encouraging others to do the same. This also indicates that areas not specifically targeted by ISIS could become new battlegrounds for the group. Recent events in eastern Beqaa Governorate underscore the shifting extremist landscape in which ISIS may have supplanted al-Qaeda as the most desirable extremist organization to be affiliated with for the first time in a decade. Such a shift would have significant consequences for al-Qaeda’s global network, how states respond to threats from non-state actors, and the manner in which armed groups plan and execute attacks throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Escalation in Syrian Spillover
To prevent violence from spreading from Arsal to the rest of Lebanon, the LAF deployed troops to areas from which Sunni militant activity may originate. Abra, the Sidon neighborhood where Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir led his failed Islamist insurrection against the government in June 2013, is now completely sealed by the LAF. Additional checkpoints leading to Ain al-Hilweh and Miye wa Miye, Palestinian refugee camps off-limits to the Lebanese government, were set up. Tawari, a neighborhood of Ain al-Hilweh, is a center of radical Islamist activity and home to Ash-Shabab al-Muslim, an off-shoot of Jabhat al-Nusra that is composed of Fatah al-Islam and Jund ash-Sham.
Spillover from the Syrian Civil War is not new to Lebanon, but previous incidents were isolated and posed a limited threat to Lebanon’s capacity to maintain general stability and security throughout the state. Until the Lebanese Armed Forces deployed to Tripoli as part of a new security plan in April 2014, Alawite residents of the Jebel Mohsen neighborhood, which support Bashar al-Assad’s government, and Sunni residents of the Bab at-Tabbaneh neighborhood, which support the Syrian opposition, engaged in violent clashes. Even when clashes expanded beyond the neighborhoods’ borders, they never posed an existential threat to the Lebanese state. Similarly, while rocket attacks, bombings, assassinations, and clashes throughout Lebanon have shaken society and prompted many to question the state’s ability to endure such a hostile environment, no single incident has been as destabilizing or dangerous as the Battle for Arsal.
Until now, groups carrying out attacks in Lebanon have almost exclusively targeted Hezbollah interests. Recent attacks against the Lebanese Armed Forces in Tripoli, fallout from the Battle for Arsal, represent a potential step-change that could lead to the LAF being targeted for its perceived role in supporting Hezbollah. On August 3, the Lebanese Armed Forces clashed with armed rebels for five hours in Tripoli during an attempt to secure the city in anticipation of sectarian blowback from LAF operations in Arsal. On August 4, the Committee of Muslim Scholars organized a protest in Tripoli to rally against LAF attacks against rebels in Arsal. When the LAF moved to block protesters, gunmen fired at soldiers. Eight LAF soldiers were injured in a separate incident, when a bus transporting them was the target of gunfire in Tripoli. While Sunni political leadership is standing by the LAF’s counteroffensive in Arsal, some Sunni sheikhs in Tripoli are not. Lebanese security forces’ capacity to conduct law enforcement in Sunni areas may be compromised by the perceived sectarian nature of its operations in eastern Beqaa Governorate.
Most Likely and Most Dangerous Outcomes
The Battle for Arsal represents the most significant spillover into Lebanese territory from the Syrian civil war thus far. It is therefore important to consider the possible implications for Lebanon as events unfold.
The most likely outcome of the Battle for Arsal is the long-term engagement of Lebanese security services along the Lebanese-Syrian border. The Lebanese Armed Forces is unlikely to be able to meaningfully end illegal cross-border traffic, but it can make operating in Arsal costly and less desirable as a fall-back position for Syrian rebels. In order for this to work, Hezbollah would need to maintain its siege on Arsal from the west, Lebanese air power would continue to bomb rebel positions east of Arsal, and the Syrian Air Force would continue to target rebels crossing the mountainous border into Lebanon, which is their only avenue of approach. No actions indicate that the nature of this cooperation will change in the near future.
The most dangerous situation that could result from the Battle for Arsal has Lebanese security forces in sustained engagement with rebels near Arsal. The Institute for the Study of War assesses that a large portion of the rank-and-file of the LAF are likely Sunni. Long-term fighting may lead to defections if Sunni LAF members are increasingly ordered to crack down on Sunni-dominant areas such as Arsal. This would sectarianize what are now seen as national institutions and jeopardize the state’s ability to defend itself from sectarian threats. The demographic reality makes working in Arsal extremely difficult. A failure to rapidly achieve mission success may result in a significantly handicapped national defense.
Sunni militant organizations operating in different geographic regions of Lebanon may unify in acting against the state if Hezbollah deploys additional troops to Arsal and its Sunni surroundings. Sunni extremist groups in Tripoli, Sidon, eastern Beqaa Governorate, and the Palestinian refugee camps have few links and are generally separated by differences in geography and leadership. A legitimate threat to Sunnis in eastern Beqaa Governorate may bring these groups together. It is unclear whether the Lebanese Armed Forces has the capacity or bandwidth to fight a multi-front Battle against a determined extremist population.
Even before the beginning of the Battle of Arsal, extremist Sunnis in Tripoli began mobilizing protests against perceived injustice toward their community in Tripoli and the continued detention of Islamist prisoners in Roumieh Prison. The arrest of leaders directing fighting in Bab at-Tabbaneh and the infrequency of clashes since April 2014 means that hundreds of men previously occupied by localized sectarian fighting are now ready and itching for a larger battle more directly linked to the Syrian conflict. The young, unemployed population in Palestinian refugee camps already has links to organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra, but the Lebanese Armed Forces can more easily restrict access into and out of these locations.
The Battle for Arsal underscores Lebanon’s vulnerability to spillover from Syria’s civil war and highlights how instability and extremism have metastasized across Iraq and the Levant since the fall of Mosul on June 10. Current events also presage the danger of small armed groups adopting ISIS’ ideology and flag while seeking to replicate its military successes beyond Iraq and Syria. The degree to which Lebanon is able to maintain security and stability will largely be determined by wars fought and decisions made beyond its borders. The response mounted by Lebanese security forces may temporarily eliminate the presence of Syrian rebels along one swath of the western side of the Lebanese-Syrian border, but Lebanon is unlikely to be able to insulate itself from regional dynamics, many of which are intensified by the sectarianism at the core of Lebanese society and politics.