ISIL, al-Nusra Front clash near Lebanon border

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut


The Lebanese Army conducts a patrol near the northern border town of Arsal. [File photo courtesy of the Lebanese Army Command's Orientation Directorate]

As al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front (ANF) and the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) struggle for dominance along Lebanon's northern border with Syria, they are weakening each other in the process, experts tell Al-Shorfa.

Battles between the two groups, such as the recent clashes on the outskirts of Arsal, can be attributed to their struggle for influence and control over new areas, and will continue as long as the war in Syria continues, they said.

On July 4th, violent armed clashes erupted between ISIL and ANF fighters on the outskirts of Arsal, the scene of regular confrontation between the two groups.

The clashes broke out after ISIL fighters took control of ANF checkpoints in the amusement park area, and later expanded to Wadi Hmeid and Wadi al-Zamrani, east of Arsal, Lebanese media reported.

On Wednesday (July 13th), the Lebanese army fired heavy artillery shells at positions manned by extremist groups, including ISIL, on the outskirts of Arsal, Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa.

A struggle for dominance

The recent clashes between ISIL and ANF, as well as previous friction between the two, can be attributed to their "struggle for influence and control", said military expert and retired Lebanese army officer Brig. Gen. Wehbe Qatisha.

"The two armed groups differ not only in strength but also objectives," he told Al-Shorfa. "So, they are locked in internal battles between them, as each party seeks to control the Syrian arena and beyond."

The timing of the recent clashes on the Lebanese border is a result of the increasing pressure and rising losses the two groups are facing in northern Syria and Aleppo, he said.

As they rack up losses in these areas, he said, the two groups are trying to seize control of new sites and expand towards Arsal where they seek to set up positions.

Arsal is of strategic interest to both groups, Qatisha said, "given its geographical location and as it is an extension of the Syrian Qalamoun region".

"While they clash in the Syrian interior under the banner of chaos and control, they clash on the Lebanese-Syrian border to extend their control and expand towards Lebanon," he said.

The Lebanese army is foiling their attempts, he added, noting that the border area will continue to be a battleground for the two groups and clashes will continue to rage between them as long as the war in Syria continues.

A cycle of infighting

The clashes between ISIL and ANF "will not end because the disputes between them are significant and deep-rooted", said Ahmad al-Ayoubi, a specialist in the affairs of extremist movements.

"ISIL believes it gave birth to ANF when, before declaring himself 'caliph', Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched Abu Mohammed al-Joulani to Syria to establish a branch of the group and support the people of Syria," he told Al-Shorfa.

"When al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph, al-Joulani did not pledge allegiance to him on the grounds that the caliphate is a major cause that concerns the entire Islamic nation, and the circumstances were not conducive to the declaration of the caliphate," he said.

"At that point, al-Joulani was considered a dissident against al-Baghdadi, who labeled ANF a dissident splinter of ISIL," he added.

"This is what drove ANF to adopt its own policy in Syria", he said, adding that the group adopted a less harsh version of sharia than ISIL, which "disallowed beheadings and hand amputations".

"ANF has not declared its own Islamic state, has entered into alliances with opposition factions on several occasions and held dialogue with Salafis and others, unlike ISIL, which works to extend its absolute control," he added.

All this has created acrimony that manifests itself in several ways, he noted, including the clashes in the Qalamoun region for influence and control.

Blocking expansion attempts

The Lebanese are very concerned these days over potential terrorist acts and extremist infiltration into the interior, political analyst Tony Farah told Al-Shorfa.

"From time to time, clashes and skirmishes erupt between ISIL and ANF on one side and the Lebanese army stationed along the eastern border on the other, as the latter works to thwart their attempts to infiltrate into Lebanon," he said.

The struggle between ISIL and ANF, as each attempt to extend their influence over the largest area possible, "is sort of reassuring to the Lebanese", he said.

This is because the clashes "effectively alleviate the pressure on the army at the fronts and reduce the chances of success of attempts to infiltrate into Lebanon", he said.

However, Farah said, this sense of relief is offset "by concerns that the two terrorist groups would develop their capabilities to the point where they are able to engage in violent confrontations among themselves and still be able to turn around and fight other parties, including the Lebanese army".

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