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What happened to kidnapped Lebanese soldiers in Arsal?

A Lebanese official told Al-Monitor that the number of Islamic militants in Arsal is steadily declining, and there is talk of the remainder leaving after negotiations.
Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters carry weapons on the back of pick-up trucks during the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen in Arsal, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, December 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Stringer      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1WPTT

Arsal and its barren environs have for more than three years experienced a shaky and unstable security situation, having attracted militants affiliated with extremist and terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. These days, stability seems to be making a comeback in Arsal, where the Lebanese army has imposed full control. A number of events and dynamics have rendered the Islamic militants in this eastern border region incapable of waging major military operations and therefore no longer a security threat.

The militants’ human and logistical capabilities have been exhausted by the serious blows their organizations have been dealt in Syria by the various forces they are fighting there, including the Syrian army, the Russian military, Hezbollah and an international coalition.

A Lebanese security speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity said that Lebanese authorities have documented information that a significant number of the militants who had been positioned in and around Arsal have moved to Syria to fight on several fronts there. The militant groups are also fighting among themselves in the Arsal area. Several clashes among militants affiliated with different groups had earlier led to battles of attrition, further weakening their capabilities in the region.

The growing capabilities of the Lebanese security forces are another factor serving to weaken the militants. The security official confirmed this, attributing it primarily to assistance from the United States, which has included arms and military equipment and gear. “This has helped the Lebanese army to deal several heavy blows to the militants,” said the official.

When clashes first erupted in Arsal in August 2014, the residents there were sympathetic to the militants, because they opposed the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In addition, Arsal’s residents are predominantly Sunni Muslims, like the militants, which helps explain their initial sympathy. This situation has, however, gradually changed.

There has been increasing hostility and animosity between the citizens of Arsal and the militants after more than three years of terror acts carried out by the latter in the town and its environs and especially because of the executions of a number of Arsal residents. The militant groups have also controlled the town’s surrounding lands, preventing locals from accessing agricultural lands and quarries, both sources of livelihood for many people in the town.

These actions further deepened the psychological and physical division between residents and the militants. “This evolved to the advantage of the Lebanese security forces in their military and security war against the armed factions,” said the official.

On April 28 the Lebanese army stormed the house of an IS official in Arsal, Nayef Shaalan Hadid, aka Abu al-Foz, who died in the ensuing clashes between the two sides.

“After this qualitative and decisive operation, all the armed extremists realized that they had little room to maneuverer inside the town, and that they are now susceptible to Lebanese army strikes,” said the source.

This operation resulted in several outcomes. Lebanese authorities in Arsal were able to conduct municipal elections, taking place nationwide, in a calm and secure atmosphere on May 8. Officials also opened polling stations in Lebanese army posts on the outskirts of the town, further ensuring voters' safety and a smooth and calm process.

Moreover, the winning electoral list was the one opposing Ali al-Hujairi, the incumbent mayor of the Arsal municipality, who was known to cooperate with the militants.

Another important outcome was the militants' return to the negotiation table with Lebanese authorities for a possible deal whereby the militants withdraw from the Arsal area toward Syria.

“Mediators in negotiations between the militants and Lebanese authorities resumed talks on this subject after the conclusion of the municipal elections,” said the security official. “They proposed that Lebanese officials coordinate with UN international agencies and the Syrian regime to implement arrangements allowing the militants to withdraw safely toward Raqqa in Syria.”

It seems, however, the success of this proposal was not meant to be. As a precondition for contact with the militants, the Lebanese side demanded information on the fate of Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra after clashes between the two groups and the Lebanese army in Arsal on Aug. 2, 2014. The militants have yet to comment on the demand.

The official noted, “The militants’ no-comment on this precondition may be a negative indication — that our soldiers are no longer alive and that the militants are hiding this fact to continue to use the issue as leverage against the Lebanese government. This is why negotiations were halted. One thing is certain: Arsal’s situation is better now, and the number of militants in the region is registering a steady decline.”

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