Beirut – The Syrian regime and Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” launched on Friday the long-awaited military operation on the outskirts of Arsal aimed at capturing the last remaining pockets along the Lebanese-Syrian border that lie in the hands of ISIS and al-Nusra Front groups.
The Lebanese army did not take part in the offensive, but it adopted a defensive role in that it targeted any movements of gunmen fleeing towards the Syrian refugee encampments on the outskirts of the northeastern border town of Arsal.
The military deployed patrols in the area as Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq held a series of security and logistic meetings with military commanders and humanitarian organizations to safeguard Arsal and its Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees.
Telecommunications Minister Jamal al-Jarrah stressed that the Lebanese army “will not be a part of the battle on the eastern borders.”
He emphasized that the military is deployed there to prevent the infiltration of gunmen from the outskirts to the town of Arsal.
The military is protecting the residents and Syrian refugee encampments, he added.
Military sources described to Asharq Al-Awsat the situation of the Lebanese army in Arsal as “very good”, especially since the battles are taking place on the Syrian side of the border and not in Lebanon.
There are sufficient numbers of military personnel in the area and no reinforcements have been summoned, they stated.
The army is fully prepared to contain any tensions that may arise, they remarked.
Furthermore, they said that coordination is ongoing between the army and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other humanitarian organizations to ensure the safe passage of families from the outskirts to Arsal.
Only women and children are being granted entry, they revealed.
“Hezbollah” media outlets said that the military operation has been launched on two fronts: one in the Syrian town of Fleita in al-Qalamoun and the other in the southern section of Arsal from the Lebanese side of the border.
The area has been a stronghold for “Hezbollah” since 2015 and the group has focused its attack on the regions under al-Nusra Front’s control.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency said that the Arsal battle was launched on Friday morning amid heavy shelling and a “Hezbollah” attack against the Fleita and Arsal outskirts – al-Kassarat fronts. It managed to seize vast areas in the eastern mountain range that separates Lebanon from Syria.
NNA reported that the militia made advances on al-Nusra positions in the Dahr al-Hawa, al-Qanzah, Oqab heights, Wadi al-Khayl and Shaabat al-Nakhleh areas. Lebanon’s Markazia news agency said that three “Hezbollah” militants were killed in these battles.
In the afternoon, NNA stated that the shelling targeted the Arsal outskirts, focusing primarily on the al-Rahwa regions after ISIS members joined the fighting alongside al-Nusra. ISIS’ battle is being led by Mouwaffaq al-Jarbani, known as “Mouwaffaq Abou al-Sous.”
“Hezbollah” later announced that it captured Sahl al-Rahwa and Dahr al-Hawa, describing them as the most important positions on the outskirts of Arsal.
A source from the Syrian opposition in Arsal told Asharq Al-Awsat that the battles are focused on the Syrian side of the Fleita outskirts, where al-Nusra and Free Syrian Army-affiliated “Ahl al-Sham Brigades” are being targeted. ISIS positions in the Mira area and its outskirts are not being shelled.
The source added: “After some heavy shelling, ‘Hezbollah’ attempted to advance on the al-Rahwa and Fleita outskirts, but they fell victim to an ambush where a number of its members were killed and wounded. The militia later announced that it had captured regions that had already been under its control.”
In the town of Arsal, the inhabitants are living in an atmosphere of “cautious calm,” one of the residents told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Head of the municipality Bassel al-Hujeiri said in a statement: “The situation in the town is stable and the Syrian refugees are staying in their encampments. The town locals are leading their lives normally amid the army’s security measures.”
Head of the ICRC delegation in Lebanon Christophe Martin told Agence France Presse that the organization is prepared to take in any potential wounded from the outskirts of Arsal into the town.
“We are offering support to two hospitals in Arsal and have provided them with more medical and surgical supplies because they have limited resources,” he explained.
Arsal has been an area of tensions for the past few years in wake of the eruption of the Syrian conflict in 2011. In 2014, al-Nusra Front and ISIS overran the town and engaged in brief battles with the Lebanese army before being driven out. They abducted in their retreat some 30 Lebanese military personnel. Four have been executed, one died from his injuries and 16 were released by al-Nusra in 2015. Nine captives remain held by ISIS.