ISIS sets sights on Arsal amid al-Raqa assault

By Tamer Abu Zaid in Beirut


'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' and al-Nusra Front fighters are seen during clashes in Arsal last fall, which prompted heavy artillery fire from the Lebanese army. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese army guidance directorate]

Since 2014, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has been attempting to establish a foothold in the area around Arsal in Lebanon's northern Bekaa Valley, which is directly across the border from Syria's al-Qalamoun region.

Over the past three years, the group has been battling al-Nusra Front (ANF) and remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in al-Qalamoun mountains.

If ISIS were to succeed in capturing the area, it would be able to secure a supply route that connects the Lebanese city of Tripoli to the Syrian desert, through rural Damascus and Homs province.

With ISIS under fire in al-Raqa and the strategic road between the province and Deir Ezzor severed, the group is searching for ways to create a supply route that reaches Arsal’s outskirts and Syrian refugee camps in Wadi Hmeid.

At dawn on Sunday (June 4th), an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up outside a post belonging to ANF, now calling itself Fatah al-Sham Front, in the Wadi Ajram area in Arsal's outskirts, the National News Agency reported.

Clashes between the two groups ensued, causing many deaths and injuries.

The Lebanese army intervened and "targeted an ISIS infantry force that was trying to infiltrate into the Ajram area, inflicting confirmed casualties", security sources said.

"Terrorist groups are active in Arsal's barren area," said Brig. Gen. Johnny Khalaf who is retired from the Lebanese army, adding that pockets of fighters pose a threat to Lebanese army troops.

"Army units have taken extreme precautionary measures, set up fixed and mobile surveillance posts, and beefed up the number of troops and military equipment," he told Al-Mashareq.

Extremist groups are spreading rumours of a possible full-on offensive on Arsal to break the siege on ISIS, which is now trapped between the Syrian army to the east, the Lebanese army to the west, and ANF to the north, he said.

ISIS is therefore "confined to one geographic area and its supply road is exposed to bombing", he said, adding that the group is considering launching an attack to create a breach in the area protected by the Lebanese army.

These reports have triggered round-the-clock surveillance along the 480-kilometre frontier, Khalaf said, with "aerial surveillance and readiness to intervene at any emergency".

"However, concerns of suicide operations against army bases remain," he said.

The rugged route to al-Raqa

To reach Arsal from al-Raqa, ISIS could use the same northern route it used when its leaders left Arsal for its al-Raqa province headquarters in late 2015, a source in the army’s command told Al-Mashareq.

The group used this route intermittently until mid-2016, the source said.

The route stretches from Qara to the Muhin plain, but the rugged and bumpy road is hard to use for vehicles and convoys, he said, noting that the group is more likely to use it for fighters and some military equipment.

ISIS currently controls al-Ajram, al-Zimrani, Khirbet Daoud, Martbaya, Wadi Mira, Wadi al-Mal, Wadi al-Sheikh Ali, Ras Baalbek’s eastern rural area, and areas up to the edge of al-Qaa, where it is confronting Syrian regime and Hizbullah fighters from Qara.

Lebanese army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun on April 8th visited military units in the Arsal area, declaring that "terrorism will have no place on Lebanese soil".

Units from the Directorate of Intelligence strike force later raided Arsal on April 22nd, killing ISIS’s al-Qalamoun commander Alaa al-Halabi, also known as "al-Mleiss", and arresting 10 fighters who were taken for interrogation.

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