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With win over IS, Lebanese army jostles Hezbollah

The Lebanese army's recent victory against IS on the Syrian border offered proof of the state forces' growing military capabilities, but Hezbollah still plays an important and complementary role in Lebanese security despite the rivalry between the two encouraged by the United States and Iran.
Hezbollah members celebrate in Qaa, Lebanon, after being released by Nusra Front, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/ Hassan Abdallah - RC1698FCD5E0

Lebanon paid tribute Sept. 8 to the soldiers who fell during the army's latest offensive against the Islamic State and those executed by the terrorist group after their kidnapping three years ago in 2014. The debate is still ongoing in the political and media arenas on the implications of the successful military operation for Hezbollah and Lebanon's defensive strategy, based thus far on the army-people-resistance triptych. The legitimacy of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria has been built on the rhetoric of protection of Lebanon from so-called "takfiri" groups, a leitmotif that had gained wide popularity, including among some segments of the population traditionally hostile to Hezbollah.

Since the Fajr al-Jorud operation launched on Aug. 19 on the outskirts of the villages of al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek, near the Syrian border, Hezbollah's legitimacy has suffered in the eyes of some observers. The party of Hassan Nasrallah “can no longer be regarded as the pre-eminent national military actor,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The army has demonstrated high-level offensive capabilities when an enabling environment is created,” he told Al-Monitor.

Retired Gen. Khalil Helou told Al-Monitor, “The recent military victory is unprecedented in modern history. The army has not been so effective and professional since 1943.”

The operation, which lasted less than two weeks and according to the army killed more than 150 jihadists, ended with a deal between Hezbollah and IS to evacuate the remaining fighters trapped in a small portion of the zone they previously controlled to the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Lebanese army has carried out several successful operations since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990. They have taken place near the Palestinian camp of Mieh w Mieh in 1991 and in the region of Danniyeh nine years later, followed by Nahr al-Bared in 2007 against Fatah al-Islam as well as another successful 2013 operation against the Salafist group of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Saida. It imposed a draconian security plan in the city of Tripoli in 2014, amid the Syrian conflict and the consequent armed clashes that arose between the Alawite Jabal Mohsen and Sunni Bab el-Tabbaneh neighborhoods.

But the last battle won by the army has special dimensions: the identity of the enemy — the most notorious terrorist group in the world since al-Qaeda — and also the speed and efficiency of the operation. Only seven soldiers were killed, according to Col. Fadi Abou Eid in a phone interview.

“Some equipment is on par with that of the most powerful armies in the region,” said Helou. With AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and a M141 bunker buster, a single-shot shoulder-launched weapon designed to destroy fortified structures, the Lebanese army had never had such powerful and modern weaponry as that it received from the United States. “The Hellfire missiles are owned by only five countries around the world, while the M141 bunker busters do not exist in any other country except Lebanon outside of the United States,” insisted Helou.

Yet the supremacy of the army is not unanimously acknowledged among the Lebanese. According to Pierre Abi Saab, deputy editor of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, “The victory of the army would not have been possible without the support of Hezbollah.”

He added, “The party's involvement in Syria since 2013 and its multiple victories have weakened IS and hence created a favorable environment for the success of the army during the last operation … which took place without any real fights, as the group was already waning, while Hezbollah and the Syrian army were conducting a simultaneous battle on the other side of the border in the western part of Qalamoun.”

The army also fought this last battle in “no-man’s land” for the first time in decades, having been progressively deployed over the Syrian border.

“The majority of the border is now under the purview of the army. The first land border regiment is stretched from Arida to Wadi Khaled, while the second controls the area from Wadi Khaled to Arsal, the third from Masnaa to Rachaya, and the fourth — which has been gradually building up its forces this year — will be deployed between Arsal and Masnaa. The Lebanese army has every intention of bringing the border security regime it has been building up since 2012 to completion as soon as possible,” explained Nerguizian.

For Helou, the army’s increasing military power, thanks to the “United States’ $1.2 billion in financial support since 2008,” confirms the “long-standing balance of power between Hezbollah and the army in favor of the latter.” He went on, “The army now has M109 155 mm self-propelled GPS-controlled artillery as well as combat aircraft, which Hezbollah does not own. … These weapons are incomparable in terms of firepower and precision to the Katyusha rockets.”

Abi Saab disagreed, explaining, “First, because the two entities are complementary and not interchangeable, as was proven on the ground during the battle in Arsal and other operations, where Hezbollah played a leading role.” Second, he said, “The Lebanese army, as competent and capable as it is, does not have 10% of Hezbollah’s ground experience acquired in Yemen, Iraq and Syria … nor the spirit of martyrdom and resistance that characterizes the party and its fighters.”

According to him, there is a “clear strategy to create tension” between the army and Hezbollah. "The US military command in the Middle East contacted its Lebanese counterparts before and during the anti-IS operation, asking them to express their total independence from Hezbollah,” he said.

Beyond the geopolitical game and the cold war between Washington and Tehran, which supports Hezbollah, to strengthen one entity over the other, one thing is sure. If the army's capabilities are no longer in question, the victory on the field during the last operation did not translate into a political gain for the Lebanese state. The final stage of the battle was finally suspended, against the Americans' wishes and objectives, due to negotiations conducted by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime with IS for an exchange of information and prisoners in exchange for the evacuation of IS fighters to the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor.

This unprecedented agreement allowed Hezbollah to force an end to an operation against a terrorist group by the national army and its political command. The deal was, however, double-edged. It also discredited the party, accused by some Iraqis and Lebanese of having flirted with the devil.

For many observers, including former military officers, in the absence of a clear local political will to monopolize political and military decisions, Hezbollah will continue to act freely, while the gradual deployment of the army along the border will not prevent the free movement of combatants and weapons to and from Syria.

“Despite the existence of border regiments and watchtowers provided by the British to prevent smuggling, Hezbollah fighters still cross the border, while weapons are transported through areas where the army has no presence, under the implicit blessing of the government,” concluded Helou.

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