Lebanon’s contribution to the global coalition against ISIS will likely center on closing the porous border with Syria and cracking down on cells within the country, analysts said.
The country’s role is likely to primarily be defensive ahead of more, expected assaults on the northeastern town of Arsal near the Syrian border, they said.
Still, Hezbollah’s involvement in the fight within Syria alongside the regime of President Bashar Assad is likely to complicate efforts to combat ISIS.
“ ISIS is a regional theater and any country in the region has a role to play, especially in terms of building a consensus to fight the jihadist group in Syria,” said Hassan Hassan, a Syrian analyst with the Delma Institute who has written extensively about the rebellion in his home country. “Lebanon is relevant for two reasons, because it is a neighboring country and because dealing with sectarian tensions in the two countries is essential in the fight against ISIS and jihadist groups in general.”
“You can’t fight ISIS without addressing what makes it popular in some circles,” he added.
The U.S. announced this month the launch of a global coalition to combat ISIS, an Al-Qaeda splinter group that now controls vast swaths of land in Iraq and Syria and has declared a caliphate in those areas.
Militants loyal to ISIS as well as the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, briefly overran Arsal last month, sweeping through Lebanese army positions and taking soldiers hostage.
The Lebanese campaign prompted a raft of pledges of military assistance to help the army combat ISIS, but the country’s role in the global war against the group is likely to remain internal and defensive.
Elias Farhat, a retired general and military strategist, said Lebanon’s role would likely be focused on securing its interior – Lebanon and Hezbollah have already been fighting Syrian rebels for over a year.
In addition, he said, it is premature to ask what role Lebanon could play in such a coalition if the mission of the campaign against ISIS and the mechanism with which it will be conducted remains “very vague” and regional powers have already shown reluctance to be a part of the effort.
Moreover, the U.S. does not need to use air bases in Lebanon to conduct airstrikes against ISIS – its bases in the Gulf, Turkey’s Incirlik, near the Mediterranean and the Red Sea are all sufficient to carry out strikes throughout the region.
Farhat said Lebanon and Hezbollah were already engaged in the fight against Syrian rebels – the army is deployed in the Northern Bekaa and outskirts of Arsal to block the entry of militants, and Hezbollah has been engaged against the militants in the Qalamoun region and west of the city of Homs.
Hezbollah “is not waiting for an international coalition,” the retired general added.
Internally, the Lebanese army is preparing itself for a renewed assault on Arsal and deploying on the outskirts of the town ahead of the winter months, when militants camped in the mountainous suburbs of the town are likely to seek refuge from the harsh winter, he said.
Rather than play an offensive role against ISIS, Farhat said the army’s primary role would therefore be to defend the interior.
“ Hezbollah is taking care of the external element in Qalamoun,” he added, referring to the mountain range where the party continues to fight Syrian rebels.
Farhat said the army’s defensive posture is necessary due to a rocky balance of power that he said favors ISIS, with its ability to procure weapons, communicate with other militants and train to fight. In addition, many of its fighters are committed and willing to die for the cause, even to conduct suicide operations.
“ ISIS is an advanced army, not just a terrorist organization with sleeper cells,” he said.
Farhat said the solution to strengthen the army’s hand in its fight against ISIS is to arm it, but he decried what he said were repeated delays in providing the army with quality weapons. He pointed to Western states arming the Kurdish peshmerga fighting against ISIS swiftly, saying it was evidence that Western powers are not serious about arming the Lebanese military.
But Hezbollah’s involvement in the war complicates Lebanon’s role in the fight against ISIS.
Hassan of the Delma Institute said Hezbollah’s “ambivalent position” on the U.S.-led war on ISIS poses a potential problem if the campaign is used to push a political settlement in Syria.
Hezbollah is suspicious of the U.S. effort, saying that it believes the U.S. campaign only aims at curbing the influence of ISIS, rather than destroying the group.
“The hope was that part of the American strategy on ISIS will involve seizing the regional consensus on ISIS to pursue a political settlement in Syria that ensures all regional countries are fully onboard with the plan,” he said. “But the strategy seems to focus on military action with no clarity on the endgame, and that is a recipe for failure.”
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow in the Middle East Forum who has extensively studied Syrian rebel groups, agreed that Hezbollah may well end up shouldering the majority of Lebanon’s fighting against ISIS incursions, given how well the party is armed.
But he said Hezbollah’s role in Syria may harm Lebanon’s contribution to the anti- ISIS war effort.
“ Hezbollah has tried to bolster its image as an organization against extremism but at this stage the group’s reputation is too tarnished by the perception it is a Shiite sectarian proxy force implementing Iran’s interests,” he said.
By Kareem Shaheen
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