Beirut – The battle in Lebanon’s northeastern border region of Arsal have revived the chances of negotiations between the al-Nusra Front and “Hezbollah” over the former’s withdrawal from the area towards Syria.
These chances were bolstered after the Lebanese party seized control of 60 percent of Nusra positions in the area, only days after the battle erupted to cleanse the outskirts, which lie on the Lebanese-Syrian border, of extremist organizations.
Syrian refugee encampments on the outskirts of the town of Arsal have been declared neutral geographic zones.
The negotiations are focused on allowing “Ahl al-Sham Brigades” fighters, who are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a safe return to Syria.
Lebanese sources in eastern Lebanon told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The progress that ‘Hezbollah’ has made has opened the door for negotiations on Sunday afternoon after it was shut on the eve of the battle that started on Thursday night.”
They revealed that a council of al-Qalamoun clerics are mediating between the two sides after the failure of negotiations that were previously led by Sheikh Mustafa al-Hujeiri to persuade Nusra extremists to leave the area.
The talks failed because Nusra Front chief Abou Malek al-Talleh refused to leave for northern Syria due to disputes with Nusra chief in the North Abou Mohammed al-Joulani.
Nusra sources have meanwhile denied that the extremist group is part of any negotiations.
Syrian field sources in Arsal told Asharq Al-Awsat that the “Ahl al-Sham Brigades” are divided between wanting to continue fighting or looking for a settlement. Others expected a truce to be reached that would pave the way for negotiations that would lead to their departure to northern Syria or their towns in al-Qalamoun in western Syria.
Meanwhile, “Hezbollah’s” media announced on Saturday that 200 members of “Ahl al-Sham Brigades” withdrew from the battle on the outskirts of Arsal and announced their surrender. The Lebanese party has allowed them to cross into one of the Arsal encampments after they laid down their arms.
Syrian opposition websites revealed that negotiations for the departure to northern Syria were still “ongoing and the first steps to that end were achieved through the ceasefire.” The negotiations came in wake of a major military campaign carried out over the past two days on the outskirts of Arsal, where the military factions now only control 800 meters of land, reported the “Anab Baladi” website.
Syrian encampments in the Wadi Hmeid and Madinat al-Malahi areas in Arsal have meanwhile been turned into “neutral geographic zones” after the “Ahl al-Sham Brigades” entered them. Lebanese sources said that they are now under the Brigades’ protection, revealing that Lebanese flags have been raised throughout the camp. None of the residents have complied with calls to fight in the battle and “Hezbollah” has also stayed clear of the area, which constitutes 30 percent of the territory the Brigades and al-Nusra Front control.
“Hezbollah” has seized the majority of the al-Nusra Front’s territory extending from the outskirts of Arsal and reaching the outskirts of Syria’s Fleita town. Lebanese media reported that the party had captured all of Fleita’s outskirts, while field sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that it had seized the majority of Wadi al-Khayl, one of al-Nusra Front’s major strongholds.
Wadi al-Khayl, which separates Arsal from its outskirts, has been the target of heavy shelling by Syrian regime jets.
Throughout these developments, the International Committee of the Red Cross had, under the supervision of the Lebanese army, transported a number of Syrian families from the Wadi Hmeid encampments on the outskirts of Arsal to the town.
The outskirts of Arsal are the remaining territory that are controlled by the Syrian opposition factions and al-Nusra Front in Syria’s western al-Qalamoun region. Should an agreement be reached in the area for their withdrawal, they will lose all their power in the region. ISIS will meanwhile maintain its positions.
The outskirts of Arsal, which lie between the town of Arsal and Ras Baalbek in Lebanon and the western al-Qalamoun region in Syria, are controlled by ISIS, al-Nusra Front and “Ahl al-Sham Brigades.” Once “Hezbollah” cleanses the area of al-Nusra, it will direct its battle against ISIS.