ISIS and Lebanon’s “War on Terror”

International media reports have claimed that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has entered the Lebanese town of Arsal. Reporting from Beirut, Ali Harfouch explains how the Lebanese army’s recent offensive is a wider war against “Sunni radicals” who support the Syrian rebels.

The Lebanese Army has cemented itself as a key player in the regional and international “war on terror” – more specifically – against “radical elements” that have dominated the Syrian revolution. On August 2nd the Lebanese Army arrested rebel commander Ahmad Abu al-Jumma in the border town of Arsal in Bekaa valley, which has witnessed a massive influx of Syrian refugees and remains a battle-zone between rebels and Syrian regime.

Arsal is also a key strategic town, the control of which means the control of the Lebanese-Syrian border. Following the arrest, heavy-clashes ensued between armed rebel groups and the Lebanese army, leaving dozens of civilians, rebel fighters and armed forces dead. Political leaders in Lebanon voiced their support for the Lebanese army, which represents the only “neutral” and “national” institution left in Lebanon’s divisive sectarian landscape.

Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria

Sunni political figures were quick to warn that the Lebanese army was essentially cleaning up a mess – fighting jihadists – created by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian revolution. The point being – Hezbollah’s military incursions and alliances with the Syrian regime were the primary catalyst for radicalisation and the spill-over of the conflict into Lebanon. Rebel fighters, similarly, condemned the Lebanese army for its “complicity with Hezbollah”. Both charges however are reductive and fail to understand the broader context of the conflict.

Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria with Assad's forces.
Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria with Assad’s forces.

First and foremost, the presence of “radical elements” within the Syrian revolution is not a product of Hezbollah’s involvement. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have existed far before Hezbollah entered Syria. In fact, the ideological origins predate those of Hezbollah.

Secondly, the spill-over of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon is a natural and inevitable result of Lebanon’s structural dependency on regional powers. Lebanon has never been a sovereign independent state and has always been inextricably influenced by regional and international changes. As a matter of fact, Lebanon represents political dependency par excellence and has functioned as a regional and international battle group since its formation following the French Mandates. Furthermore, regional “spill-overs” also pre-date the Syrian conflict.

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Lastly, the Lebanese army is not acting in direct complicity with Hezbollah per se. Hezbollah, in and of itself is not an independent actor. Rather the Lebanese army and Hezbollah are acting in complicity with a regional and international initiative aimed at marginalising radical elements in Syria and pressuring the rebels into a political transition and solution dictated and carried out under the auspices of the U.S.

Have ISIS entered Lebanon?

The Lebanese Armed Force’s (LAF) incursions into Arsal coincide with Hezbollah’s three-phase military campaign against Arsal, the last phase being a full-encirclement of the northern perimeter of Arsal called Tfail. Long before the clashes in Arsal ensued, the LAF has been involved in a nation-wide campaign against “radical elements”, carrying out arrests, assassinations and full-blown battles including the climatic siege of the Lebanese cleric Ahmad al-Asir in Sidon.

That being said, the LAF is not an institution immune from sectarian divisions plaguing Lebanon, if anything, the LAF has begun to witness Sunni defections amidst its heightened campaigns against Sunni-dominated areas. In addition to the precarious Sectarian balance in the LAF, the involvement of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, an independent clerical body of leading scholars in attempting to secure a cease-fire alludes to the fact that there is no consensus on the military truce posited by the Lebanese government.

Many Sunnis have defected the Lebanese army.
Many Sunnis have defected the Lebanese army.

The political and ideological cloak for this campaign has been the now redundant narrative “the war on terror” with media outlets around the world claiming that “ISIS has entered into Lebanon”. Domestically, and internationally the clashes in Arsal have been (conveniently) framed as one between the forces of stability (the LAF) and Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Al-Nusra has denied any involvement in the clashes, whilst ISIS cells within Lebanon have limited presence in border regions.

Worse yet, the LAF have been praised for protecting Lebanon’s sovereignty, a characteristic which the Lebanese state has never enjoyed and a value (sovereignty) which Hezbollah continues to transgress. The assertiveness and authoritative discourse employed by the Lebanese government towards the “terrorist” and “takfiris” indicates that the frail Lebanese government is backed by the regional and international powers.

An independent delegation sent by the much-respected “Association of Muslim Scholars” was attacked whilst mediating a truce in Arsal by unknown assailants, in turn, leaving no room for a third-party in the clash between the Lebanese army and the “terrorists”. Arbitrary arrests, complicity and hypocrisy has polarised Lebanon’s Muslim community, creating a wide-spread surge of discontent among Sunni Muslims. Attempts to isolate the Syrian uprising from its support-bases in Lebanon will only serve to consolidate domestic support for the rebels as the lines of demarcation between pro-government and anti-government camps widen.

While the material support can be quelled and cut off, the ideological affiliation and support will only be consolidated leaving disenchanted Sunni-Muslims in Lebanon all the more polarised and a fertile grounds for “radicalisation” – in other words – Islamisation.


Ali Harfouch is a political activist, writer and commentator based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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