By the end of July 2014, the much anticipated spillover of the civil war in Syria into Lebanon became a reality on the ground when a coordinated coalition of the two biggest Jihadist insurgents active in Syria — Jabhat el Nusra and Da’esh (ISIS) — attacked a small village, Arsal, located in the Bekaa Valley bordering Syria, about 75 miles northeast of the Lebanese capital city, Beirut. The Jihadists succeeded first in taking over a Lebanese Army camp, killing dozens of soldiers and civilians, but under the pressure of the Lebanese army that intervened with tanks, artillery, ground forces and attack helicopters, some of the Jihadists left for the hills surrounding the village leaving behind executed prisoners, civilians and soldiers alike. Other Jihadists entered the local mosque with hostages and barricaded themselves inside, ready to engage in a long battle with the Lebanese Army.
The Lebanese people were appalled by the brutality of the Jihadists, and they united in their resolve to prevent them from infringing on Lebanese sovereignty. The Lebanese Army dispatched reinforcements to the area to seal it from potential incursions to Arsal by more Jihadists. Arsal appears to be nothing more than a small village with a Sunni majority population on the border with Syria.
Arsal, however, is much more than that in military terms: it represents the northern entrance to the Bekaa Valley that allows a ground connection with Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli. A Sunni majority populates Tripoli, situated on the Mediterranean Sea south of Syria’s principal port Latakia, and is today a key logistics center for Syrian insurgents. By creating territorial contiguity between Arsal and Tripoli the Jihadists could isolate the Hizbullah-protected Shi’ite villages between Tripoli and the area of Homs, thus cutting the vital road used by the Syrian regime to link Alawite-dominated Latakia with the capital Damascus and Syria’s northern big cities Homs, Hamah and Aleppo. Latakia is considered the heartland of the Alawite-led Assad regime.1
Moreover, it seems that the initiative to attack Arsal came weeks after Hizbullah and the Syrian troops loyal to the Assad regime succeeded in cutting the lines that allowed the Jihadists and the Free Syrian Army free passage between Syria and Lebanon west of the Qalamoun mountains and near the Zabadani crossing point with Lebanon. By attacking Arsal, the Jihadists were also trying to compel Hizbullah and the Syrian regime to divert forces to the Arsal area in order to close the breach, thus allowing them to “return” to the southern penetration axis to Lebanon and Damascus.
This is the reason behind the unusual reaction of the Lebanese body politic and the urgency with which the army reacted to the attack. The incumbent Prime Minister Tammam Salam declared the country to be in a state of extreme alert and asked the army to deal with “the danger against the homeland.” Never in the modern history of independent Lebanon2 had a Chief of the Army (in this case General Jean Kahwaji) called a press conference to condemn the “Takfiris” (heretics), a term used by the Lebanese media to characterize the Jihadists as a whole. Kahwaji stated that the Jihadists aimed at destroying Lebanon’s unity, and therefore the Lebanese army would fight until they are repelled from Lebanon’s territory. Lebanon sees itself today at war with the Jihadists. Hizbullah has already declared that its forces will back the army in its battle against the Jihadists and all political factions have expressed their support to the army.
Three years after the start of the civil war in Syria, it seems that Lebanon is about to experience a head-on confrontation with the Jihadi forces coming from Syria and Iraq. The danger is not only from within (Sunni Jihadists led by Lebanese Sheikh al-Assir), but from a Jihadist tidal wave that could split the country into two, just like Da’esh (ISIS) did in Iraq in the beginning of July.
The Lebanese Army is basically a sectarian army. The real threat could come from the army imploding into different sectarian brigades that could join the Jihadists in their battle against the loyal army.
Unlike other Arab armies in the region, the Lebanese army lacks military experience. In the last decades the only confrontations the Lebanese Army took part in were against Palestinian refugee camps, mainly in Tripoli. This lack of experience could be detrimental to the ability of the Lebanese army to sustain a frontal assault by organized Jihadists toughened by years of urban warfare in Syria and Iraq.
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