Baalbek, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Lebanese army pressed ahead on Tuesday with its campaign to dislodge Islamist militants from the eastern city of Arsal, amid reports that Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is also mobilizing fighters in anticipation of the conflict spreading to the surrounding region.
Two Lebanese soldiers were reported killed overnight in clashes in Arsal with Sunni Islamist militants while ceasefire talks mediated by the Lebanese Committee of Muslim Scholars failed, with three members of the delegation being wounded when their car came under fire. Lebanese military and security forces have been seeking to drive out the Islamist fighters—predominately belonging to the Al-Nusra Front—over the past four days.
“So long as the Lebanese military is capable of preventing the Islamists from expanding towards the Shi’ite villages in the Beqaa Valley, Hezbollah will not take the decision to intervene,” Lebanese military expert retired Brig. Gen. Amin Hoteit told Asharq Al-Awsat.
However, if the Lebanese military is unable to contain the Sunni Islamists in Arsal, Hezbollah “will not stand idly by, and will be ready to defend the areas under its control,” he added, specifically citing Baalbeq, Hermel and Beqaa.
Senior Hezbollah official Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek had earlier issued a statement affirming that the Lebanese militia was “backing” the army against the Sunni Islamist militants who have taken up residence in Arsal.
“We will not allow for our mosques or churches to be destroyed and we will defend [them] with all our might, and we will not hesitate to do so . . .We say that Lebanon is not Mosul,” he added, in reference to Iraq’s northern city captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Mustafa Abdu, a former councilor for the Shi’ite-dominated town of Al-Labwa in eastern Lebanon, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “What is happening in Arsal is the result of the fall of Al-Qusayr and Qalamoun and the insurgents’ control of the border area with Syria,” adding that this “imposed a new security reality on Arsal, which has become a safe haven for Islamist militants and smugglers.”
Responding to a question about Hezbollah getting involved in the conflict, Abdu said: “The Lebanese Army enjoys popular support from the people who are ready to defend their homes and villages.”
Lebanon’s Cabinet on Monday issued a statement strongly backing the military’s campaign in Arsal, stressing that there could be no political deal with “terrorist groups that violate national security and attack military and security forces.”
“There will be no leniency with the terrorist killers and no conciliation with those who have violated Lebanon’s territory and harmed its people,” Prime Minister Tammam Salam told reporters.
Lebanese military forces have been clashing with Islamist militants in Arsal over the past four days, with Monday night’s fatalities bringing the total death toll to 16, with more than 86 wounded in the fighting.