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Towards the end of April 2014 the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah and the Sunni-extremist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had their first face-to-face confrontation. The latter had swept across the Kalamoon region of Syria and captured several towns close to the Lebanese border. Fierce battles eventually forced ISIS to retreat from those areas. Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, said then, “Had we not intervened in Syria at the right time and in the right way, ISIS would be in Beirut right now”. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria to support the Assad regime goes back to 2012.
Alarmed by these events, Hezbollah rushed to place its military forces and intelligence services on alert. Checkpoints were set up at all entrances to the southern suburbs of Beirut, the stronghold of Hezbollah and the Lebanese Shia. The measures were taken as a precaution against the possibility that ISIS had sleeper cells in Lebanon, which might carry out attacks against Hezbollah. Many attributed to ISIS a wave of car bombs that had hit various areas of Lebanon in the previous months. Over the following month, however, the Hezbollah-ISIS fight was confined to Syrian territory, particularly the areas bordering Lebanon.
In June 2014, however, IS (the Islamic State, as it then renamed itself) released a video of five men calling for jihad in Syria and neighbouring countries. One of the jihadists, named in the video as Abu Muthanna al-Yemeni, who claimed to hold the British citizenship, said, “We understand no borders. We have taken part in battles in Sham [Greater Syria] and in a few days we will go to Iraq and will fight them and will even go to Lebanon and Jordan”.
In just a few days, his threats proved serious. On June 25, IS officially declared the expansion of its activities to Lebanon. The group claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on the Duroy Hotel in Beirut. In a statement, IS said the attack targeted members of Lebanese General Security, “which is allied with Hezbollah”. Threatening Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army, the IS stated, “We tell the party of Satan and its army in Lebanon that this is only the beginning. Get ready for hundreds of suicide bombers”.
Capture of Arsal
In August, hundreds of gunmen showed up overnight in the Lebanese northern town of Arsal, declaring their affiliation with IS and the al-Qaeda–allied al-Nusra Front. Within a few hours, the militants managed to capture the entire town after launching a sudden attack against security points in the area and seizing three of them. The attack came three days after the Lebanese authorities arrested Imad Jumaa, an IS military leader who was visiting a secret IS field hospital in Arsal.
In response, the Lebanese Army launched a wide military operation against IS in Arsal, where hundreds of Syrians fleeing the violence in their own country had taken refuge. Nine Lebanese soldiers were killed, 25 others were injured, and 13 went missing in the operation. Three civilians were also killed, and many IS fighters were reported killed.
The events in Arsal marked the first wide-scale, overt presence of IS on Lebanese soil. Although the Lebanese Army was able to weaken the IS presence in Arsal, IS remained in Lebanon.
According to media reports, IS fighters in Lebanon are mostly foreigners. No Lebanese radical Islamist group has so far declared a merger with IS. Lebanese investigations show that only few Lebanese have been involved in IS activities in Lebanon, but several media surveys indicate a certain degree of sympathy with IS among the Lebanese, especially in the Sunni-majority areas.
During the Lebanese Army’s operation in Arsal, its members were accused of committing violations against Sunni civilians, including random arrests, burning the tents of the Syrian refugees, and attacks on women, children, and the elderly. Such practices have apparently resulted in increasing sympathy for ISIS and other radical Sunni groups in Lebanon.
Following the arrest of Imad Jumaa, the Lebanese media published what it claimed to be his confession during his interrogation by Lebanese General Security. He was quoted as saying that IS was planning to establish an Islamic state extending from Lebanon’s al-Bekaa Valley to Lebanon’s northern border.
Political analyst Talal Atrisi sees IS expansion into Lebanon as a result of the group’s “achievements of capturing Iraq’s Mosul and other Iraqi areas, as well as its inability to overthrow the regime in Syria and establish an Islamic state there”, but he believes that “IS activity in Lebanon would probably be only symbolic and would not be on a battlefield, as is the case in Syria and Iraq”. Atrisi says that, in Lebanon, IS would not go beyond launching occasional attacks against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army.
But, with Hezbollah’s obvious domination of Lebanon’s state institutions and the radical ideology of both Hezbollah (on the Shiite side) and IS (on the Sunni side), the real major conflict in Lebanon today apparently remains between these two parties. At the moment, each is the other’s worst enemy. One can easily read this in Hezbollah’s media and in recent statements by its leaders. In a speech in August, Nasrallah called for solidarity against IS and warned against “the takfiri trend [declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers], whose worst manifestation is IS, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq and would control oil wells, rivers, and dams and has huge amounts of arms and ammunition”. Nasrallah added that, “Even if those who don’t want to bear the responsibility turn their backs, we will not turn ours, and we will not migrate anywhere in the world. Here we stay and here we live. And if the fight is imposed on us, we shall fight and be buried here. We can change the course of events in this region as we did in the July 2006 war”.
So far, however, Hezbollah seems to have avoided the appearance that it is leading the fight against IS in Lebanon. Despite the fact that Hezbollah is better armed and experienced more militarily—let alone the fact that its ideological motive is to eradicate IS in Lebanon—it has been leaving the Lebanese Army to take the lead. Some experts believe that Hezbollah is thus trying not to aggravate Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon, while others believe that this was not Hezbollah’s decision alone and that there are several regional and international understandings that keep Hezbollah out of the fight against IS. Given Hezbollah’s political hegemony over the Lebanese government for the present, however, many see no clear distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army.
In any case, neither side seems to have been successful in undermining the other in Lebanon, either militarily or ideologically, but no one seems optimistic that this conflict will end soon and without losses. In fact, many experts agree that the confrontation will soon become fiercer.