The Islamist army known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has gained a foothold Lebanon, where it is facing the Lebanese Army. Hezbollah, another potent Lebanese force, said Wednesday that it has no plan to directly engage ISIS at the present.
Hezbollah’s leadership told the Lebanese Daily Star that the organization is providing only logistical support to the Lebanese Army in its battle against ISIS in Arsal, but it continues to secure its hold on surrounding areas and could enter the fray if the Islamists gain ground.
In seeking to establish a foothold in Lebanon, he said, ISIS first used car bombs, then suicide bombers, until it was prepared to launch an open battle.
For now, Hezbollah has taken a decision to step back from the confrontation with ISIS in Arsal and leave the mission to the Lebanese Army, which has no choice but to stamp out the threat at any cost, the official said.
However, the Shiite militia has deemed the 11 kilometers separating Arsal from Labweh, a bastion of support for Hezbollah, a red line which could trigger Hezbollah's direct intervention.
So far, the Lebanese army has lost 13 of its soldiers in a costly battle with rebels to retake the north-eastern Sunni town of Arsal – on the Syrian border and hitherto a resupply base for Islamists trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement Monday that its forces were engaged in fierce battles with the Islamists in Arsal, where witnesses reached by telephone, including the deputy mayor, said shelling had hit the town from multiple directions and thousands of residents had fled.
Arsal is also one of the temporary homes for many of the Syrian war refugees who have sought sanctuary in eastern Lebanon, and witnesses said Lebanese Army checkpoints were refusing to let the refugees relocate deeper into the country. Some refugees said they were panicking because they had nowhere to go.
“The situation is miserable,” Arsal’s deputy mayor, Ahmad Flitti, told the New York Times. “Now the shelters are full. Soon we are going to have shortages in drugs, and hospitals here will not be able to receive more wounded.”
The United Nations refugee agency’s Lebanon representative, Ninette Kelley, said in a statement that she had traveled to the Bekaa Valley region near the fighting on Monday and was conferring with Lebanese officials “to determine what additional supplies should be mobilized for civilians in need, including food, water and medicines.”
The Arsal fighting began on Friday when the Lebanese Army arrested Imad Ahmad Jomaa, the commander of a Syrian Islamist rebel group, in Arsal. His disciples, which included brigades affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, then attacked Lebanese troops, and the insurgents seized control of the town. They have demanded Jomaa’s release as a condition for any cease-fire.
A high-ranking Hezbollah official told The Daily Star that Hezbollah is worried that the Lebanese Army’s capabilities “do not match its resolve” to regain control of the Bekaa Valley town, where four days of clashes have killed 16 soldiers and nine civilians.
What ignited the situation, he added, was not so much Jomaa's arrest but ISIS's announcement “that the time had come to implement its plan and announce a vast Islamic emirate, imposing its emirs while sabotaging the Arab world and pushing it into the furnace of ignorance and backwardness in the name of Islam,” he said.