Lebanon gears up for spring war against armed groups

More attacks are expected from the Nusra Front and ISIL as spring comes to the Qalamoun mountain range.

Lebanon army
Within Lebanon, the main concern is whether the army is adequately equipped for the fight [Nour Samaha/Al Jazeera]

Tal el-Hamra, Ras Baalbak outskirts, Lebanon – The Tal el-Hamra army post, perched on a mountaintop just 15km from Syria, has become a focal point in Lebanon’s battle to prevent armed groups involved in Syria’s civil war from gaining a foothold in Lebanon.

In a rare visit to the base, Al Jazeera was given an opportunity to observe the Lebanese army as it readies itself for what is expected to be an intense battle against the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and remnants of the Free Syrian Army that have joined the other two groups.

Having endured a harsh winter and dwindling supplies in the Qalamoun mountain range, which straddles the border between Lebanon and Syria, the armed groups are keen to gain a foothold further inside Lebanon.

Tal el-Hamra has already been attacked several times, most significantly in January, when fighters, reportedly from the Nusra Front, clashed with the army and killed several soldiers in an attempt to overrun the strategically located base.

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Analysts and military personnel expected the tough winter weather to weaken the fighters, but their continued attacks in recent months – specifically in Ras Baalbak – have proved otherwise.

As a result, both sides are preparing for a larger confrontation. Within Lebanon, the main concern is whether the army is adequately equipped for the fight – especially given that in Lebanon, political imperatives often trump those of national security.

Lebanon’s weak, ill-equipped army consists of approximately 87,000 soldiers from all religions and sects. It also has an air force numbering 1,200 personnel and a navy with 1,000 men. Historically, local Lebanese leaders have opposed the creation of a strong army, seeing it as a potential threat to their own power. Some foreign countries have also sought to keep the Lebanese army weak, concerned that a strong army would confront neighbouring Israel, with which Lebanon is still technically at war. However, the growing strength of the armed group Hezbollah has compelled powers like the United States and France to supply military aid to the Lebanese armed forces in hopes of creating a counterweight.

Lebanon army struggles to protect border from ISIL

Nevertheless, this aid has not enabled the Lebanese army to obtain any advanced weaponry. Between 2005 and 2010, for example, the US provided approximately $700m in military aid, but this mainly consisted of non-lethal equipment such as Humvees, night-vision goggles, body armour and uniforms. The US and France then briefly suspended their aid following pressure from Israel. The US has also sought to maintain control over who supplies the Lebanese army, and which weapons are supplied. In 2008, then-Defense Minister Elias el-Murr, working to appease the US, promised to indefinitely delay a Russian offer of fighter jets and tanks to Lebanon.

The same situation prevails today. Although the emergence of ISIL has convinced several countries to actively sponsor the Lebanese army, it has yet to receive any heavy weaponry – and politics is one reason why.

At the end of 2013, Saudi Arabia announced a gift of $3bn in military aid to bolster the position of then-President Michel Suleiman. In August 2014, following brutal clashes between militants and the Lebanese army in the border town of Arsal, Saudi Arabia bestowed another gift of $1bn, this time through self-exiled former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to bolster the position of the Saudi-backed Future Movement among the local Sunni population. Neither gift has actually produced any weapons on the ground.

According to a high-level Lebanese military official, a $500m deal has already been agreed upon between the Lebanese army and Russian defence contractors. The funds are to be taken from the $1bn Saudi military aid package, which is supposed to be split evenly between the army and the Internal Security Forces, with the sums distributed by Hariri after consulting with the relevant parties.

The deal, which includes around 250 Kornet missiles, two dozen rocket launchers and tens of rockets, has yet to come to fruition “because Hariri has not paid them”, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Russians also offered 60 T-72 tanks plus another 60 free of charge, including helicopters, but it was rejected.

“[Hariri] promised 50 percent [of the total cost] within 48 hours, and nothing has materialised from his end,” said the army official. “This was back in January,” he said, citing politics as the reason for the delay.

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Iran has also offered Lebanon military aid to help in its battle against armed groups, but strong opposition, both domestic and international, scuttled the idea.

“Up until now the Americans, the British, and the Jordanians have all given us equipment,” said the army source. “They are the only ones. Absolutely nothing has come through from the Saudis or the French.”

The US and its allies have recently slightly upped military aid as a result of the ISIL threat, providing howitzers, armoured personnel carriers, mortars, millions of rounds of ammunition, Hellfire missiles and a couple of armed Cessna light aircraft for observation.

Though describing the army’s weaponry as “light” in comparison to that possessed by other national armies, the source conceded that “we need to be realistic. We don’t have the skills or manpower to maintain very heavy weaponry – like fighter jets, for example”.

The Lebanese army has recently beefed up its presence along its eastern border with Syria, and is estimated to have between 5,000 and 7,000 troops deployed between the villages of al-Qaa and Ras Baalbak.

Daily skirmishes are already taking place between the army and armed groups. In the Tal el-Hamra post, Al Jazeera witnessed the army’s intermittent shelling of targets located just kilometres away. “We don’t have advanced weaponry or planes and if we had, we may have ended the battle by now,” one captain at the post told Al Jazeera, pointing out various positions held by the fighters. “Instead, we do the best with what’s available to us: ordinary weapons.

Today we're talking about a hybrid conflict. It is not about actually crossing into Lebanon and taking over, but rather creating enough instability inside the country in order to reduce the pressure on the militants in the mountains.

by Mario Abou Zeid, political and military analyst

“These people are very dangerous because they’re not an organised army,” he continued. “They work in small groups and use different techniques to infiltrate.” Before, the captain said, members of the armed groups had disguised themselves as shepherds working in the Qalamoun valley, making it easy for them to enter Lebanese villages.

According to Mario Abou Zeid, a political and military analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, the army is fighting two enemies with different strategies. ISIL is looking to expand and create an emirate inside Lebanon, while the al-Nusra Front is focusing on establishing supply routes to areas inside Lebanon where it already enjoys support.

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“The real threat comes from al-Nusra, because they have an enabling environment already present in Lebanon,” Abou Zeid said. “ISIL lacks local leaders or support within the Sunni community here as it does in other areas of the region.”

Abou Zeid stressed that the ongoing fighting is not conventional warfare. “Today we’re talking about a hybrid conflict,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is not about actually crossing into Lebanon and taking over, but rather creating enough instability inside the country in order to reduce the pressure on the militants in the mountains.”

The Lebanese army is not the only force fighting against the armed groups. Hundreds of fighters from Hezbollah, the Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades, the Syrian Socialist National Party and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a pro-Assad Palestinian group, have been deployed along other areas of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army is positioned on the other side of the Qalamoun mountain range, sandwiching the armed groups between hostile forces.

The Lebanese government decided not to cooperate or coordinate with the Syrian government when the civil war broke out in 2011 in Syria. However, Lebanese army sources confirmed that there has been close coordination between the army and Hezbollah, with the latter acting as a go-between for the Lebanese and Syrian militaries.

“We should have coordination with the Syrians for these battles but the government refuses, so we can’t do anything,” one army source said. “So Hezbollah coordinates with the Syrian army, and Hezbollah coordinates with us.”

Describing Hezbollah’s relationship with the army, the army source explained: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend. We are both fighting the same enemy.”

Source: Al Jazeera