A controversial evacuation deal between Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese political party and armed group, and the Syrian regime allowing hundreds of Islamic State (IS) militants and their families to leave a Syrian-Lebanese border region appears to have backfired.
The deal, which was brokered in late August 2017, prompted a stand-off with the coalition led by the United States (US) fighting IS in Syria, amid conflicting stories about the roles of Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed forces (LAF) and the Syrian government in the operation.
On 30 August 2017, the coalition used air strikes to block the route of a convoy of 17 buses carrying the fighters and dozens of civilian refugees to Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, which borders Iraq and is the only Syrian province still under IS control.
‘The coalition and our Iraqi partners were not a party to the agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and IS to allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under the Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border,’ the coalition said in a statement. ‘IS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution.’
Iraqi officials also expressed anger at the deal. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called it “unacceptable” and an “insult to the Iraqi people”.
As a result of the coalition’s intervention, the convoy was left stranded in the Syrian desert. Six of the buses eventually turned back. Coalition officials said that they would not bomb the buses because of the presence of women and children and that food and water had been provided.
Yet a coalition spokesman told Foreign Policy magazine that American aircraft had been shooting down individual fighters as they attempted to flee across the desert, or in some cases when they left the buses to relieve themselves.
In late July 2017, Hezbollah launched an offensive against an outpost of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition headed by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a jihadist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated with al-Qaeda, on the outskirts of the remote Lebanese town of Arsal.
The offensive ended in a deal that saw as many as 9,000 fighters and civilian refugees sent back to so-called ‘safe zones’ in Syria, while thousands more refugees fled from the formerly al-Nusra-controlled areas into the Lebanese town of Arsal, which has essentially been cut off from the rest of the country since al-Nusra and IS launched attacks on the Lebanese army there in 2014.
In a separate deal between Hezbollah and Saraya Ahl al-Sham, a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army which is also operating in the border area, another 3,000 fighters and refugees were sent back to Syria.
On 19 August 2017, the Lebanese army launched its own offensive against IS militants in the nearby areas of Ras Baalbek and Qaa, while Hezbollah and the Syrian army fought the group on the other side of the border. Under the subsequent evacuation deal, IS agreed to withdraw its fighters and to provide information about the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers captured in 2014. The bodies of eight soldiers were subsequently found near the border.
Lebanese officials insisted that they were not coordinating directly with either the Syrian regime or Hezbollah. The day the offensive began, army spokesman Ali Qanso said there was “no direct or indirect coordination with Hezbollah and the Syrian army”.
But following the announcement of the evacuation deal, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah seemed to contradict this narrative, describing the victory over IS as an example of the “golden equation” of cooperation between his group, the Lebanese army and the Lebanese people, to which he suggested the Syrian army should be added. That suggestion drew pushback from political factions in Lebanon opposed to the Syrian regime.
Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, said the assertion that the Lebanese army was coordinating with Hezbollah and the Syrian army “would harm the [Lebanese] army, internally and externally, whereby several countries that are helping the army in various ways will stop their aid if it [the army] was found to be coordinating with Hezbollah and the Syrian army.” Geagea was likely referring to the US, which has provided an estimated $1.5 billion in support to the Lebanese army over the past decade.
Nasrallah – who propagates a theory that the US and Israel created IS to further their own aims in the Middle East – claimed in his post-victory speech that the US had been opposed to the border operation and tried to prevent the Lebanese army from participating.
The contention seemed to contradict the fact that prior to the operation, on 14 August 2017, the US delivered eight new Bradley fighting vehicles, the first of a total shipment of 32, to the Lebanese military. In an apparent jab at Hezbollah, US Ambassador Elizabeth Richard said the aid was a sign of American “support long term to the army – and only the army – as it fights terrorism and defends the borders of this country”. She added: “The Lebanese armed forces need to maintain their rightful place as the sole provider of security and stability to the Lebanese people.”
Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Syria Deeply that the border operation highlighted the “fine line” Hezbollah walks with regards to the Lebanese army.
“Hezbollah cannot afford for the LAF not to be a competent, professional force that can maintain security and stability in Lebanon while they maintain expeditionary deployments in Syria and elsewhere,” he said. “At the same time, Hezbollah does not want the LAF to be so capable that it believes itself to be Lebanon’s pre-eminent national security actor, possibly nullifying Hezbollah’s national security role and the confidence that some Lebanese have in its resistance narrative.”