Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” and the Syrian regime launched on Friday an operation against militants on both sides of the border.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television and its “War Media” social media channels carried announcements of “the start of a military operation to purge Arsal’s outskirts and Qalamoun of armed terrorists.”
The operation has been anticipated for several weeks, and comes after Lebanese soldiers carrying out raids on Syrian refugee encampments in the area were met with suicide bombings and a grenade attack that left a girl dead and several soldiers wounded.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri said earlier this week “the Lebanese army will carry out a planned-out operation in Arsal’s outskirts and the government gives it freedom (to do so).”
Lebanese troops are not involved in the fighting in the mountainous border region, a high-ranking military source told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“The army has no role in this war because its boundaries are inside Syrian territories,” the source said, adding “the military’s mission is to preserve Lebanon’s safety and the safety of the Lebanese and those residing in it.”
The town of Arsal lies on the Lebanese side of the in-places ambiguously demarcated border.
Around 45,000 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations live in the town, but more are believed to be living in camps on its outskirts, although their numbers have not been confirmed.
But the military source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Lebanese army is keen on protecting the refugees.
The Qalamoun region lies on the Syrian side of the border across from Arsal. While much of it is now under regime control, pockets of rebel-held territory remain, particularly along the border.
Hezbollah media outlets said the operation had been launched on two axes — from the Syrian town of Flita and from the southern part of Arsal’s outskirts, already under the group’s control.
The operation comes as tensions rise in Lebanon over the presence of more than one million Syrian refugees.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun warned this week against anti-refugee rhetoric in the wake of the attacks on troops in Arsal.
After the raids, the Lebanese army arrested dozens of people, four of whom were subsequently declared to have died of pre-existing conditions while in custody.