The Lebanese army fought an open battle in the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal. It started on Aug, 2, and so far, it is unclear how the final settlement will be; the battle is now suspended.
Arsal is a Sunni town around which open, barren land stretches 50 kilometers (30 miles). It is bordered by Syria to the east and by a number of Shiite towns, notably Labweh, to the west. Arsal, with a surface area of 317 square kilometers (197 square miles) and a population of about 40,000, hosts about 120,000 displaced Syrians who have taken refuge there since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis.
On Aug. 2, Arsal was overrun by thousands of gunmen who attacked it from the surrounding mountains and were joined by others from among the displaced in the town. The move was sparked by the arrest of a top wanted person, Imad Ahmed Jumaa, at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Arsal. Jumaa had joined Jabhat al-Nusra in the Qalamoun battle and then swore allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) two weeks ago. According to military sources, Jumaa confessed during interrogation on the day of his arrest that he was carrying out reconnaissance missions on army positions in preparation to attack and take soldiers hostage to exchange for Islamist fighters. He was also planning to attack Bekaa villages found suitable for the establishment of an Islamic emirate. Jumaa’s arrest prompted the gunmen to attack army posts in Arsal and its surroundings. Lebanese commander Jean Kahwaji described the attack as “pre-planned in detail.”
According to sources monitoring the situation in the field, about 5,000 gunmen were in Arsal, with about 2,500 others scattered in its surroundings. The fighters seem to be of several nationalities. They came to Arsal with light and medium weapons, a lot of fighting experience and skill with explosives acquired from Syrian battles in Qusair, Qalamoun, Yabrud and Nabak.
The situation inside Arsal was confusing since the beginning. The inhabitants who managed to leave said that the gunmen have killed dozens of people, took others as human shields and seized homes and shops. However, the situation seems settled now that the gunmen retreated. But the current danger lies in the fact that the gunmen retreated with the 22 soldiers from the Lebanese army and the 17 ISF members who were held captive, after the initiative of the Association of Muslim scholars — which went into Arsal and negotiated with the gunmen — only managed to release six hostages, three ISF members and three army soldiers.
The prospects of a military settlement for the Lebanese army which sacrificed 17 martyrs and dozens wounded seem uncertain. The entry of the army [into Arsal] was not an option as the inhabited areas present major difficulties for a military operation, as the gunmen’s strategy relies on keeping the people inside the town by force to keep the town from becoming an easy target for the Lebanese army. As long as the people are inside Arsal, the army will not be able to fight in its streets or use heavy weapons, as this action would kill many civilians, causing public, political and sectarian pressure.
On the other hand, delaying a decisive military resolution will prolong the battle. This in turn would exhaust the army and cause it more losses. Since the barren land east of Arsal is in Syrian territory and thus can be handled by the Syrian army, and since Hezbollah is deployed in the southwest to protect Shiite villages, the Lebanese army is focusing its military operations on separating the town of Arsal from its surroundings and cutting off the supply lines between the two sides, to stop Arsal from becoming a reservoir of gunmen.
The army has fought to retake its positions surrounding the town. It has also extended its control over the hills overlooking the theater of operations to tighten the circle around the gunmen.
The army has said that a decisive military settlement would entail recovering all captured soldiers and evicting all gunmen from Lebanese territory. So how will the battle end? And where will the gunmen go? It’s highly unlikely that they would return to Syria, so they have only the lands around Arsal. But how long can they survive there, in a land empty, dry and lacking the necessities that they had in Arsal, the town that gave them shelter, assistance and support?
The battle being fought in Arsal has reminded the Lebanese of the Nahr al-Bared war of 2007, but the comparison may not be apt. The terrain in the two cases is different. Nahr al-Bared is a Palestinian refugee camp that fully supported Fatah al-Islam. This fact permitted the whole camp to be put under siege and dealt with as a hostile area. This is not the case in Arsal, which is a Lebanese town with Lebanese citizens and thousands of displaced Syrians. There is also a big difference in the number of gunmen. That number did not exceed 600 in Nahr al-Bared, while Arsal and its surroundings hold more than 7,000 gunmen. The areas of the clashes also have different sizes. Nahr al-Bared is no bigger than one kilometer square, while Arsal and its surrounding lands are about 300 (116 square miles).
Arsal was and will remain a challenge. But for three years, the army has been calling for preventing the centers for displaced Syrians throughout Lebanese territory from turning into breeding grounds for terrorism. Today, any security incident in any area may end up spreading to all Lebanese territory.