WASHINGTON – Some 3,000 Sunni jihadist fighters have gathered in the Syrian Qalamoun mountains bordering eastern Lebanon, poised to attack a series of Christian towns in northern and central Lebanon. They appear to be preparing to undertake a pincer attack on the north around Tripoli and in the south from the Syrian Golan Heights, according to informed Middle East sources. As they appear to be surviving the harsh winter in the mountains for a possible series of attacks in the spring.
The sources say the fighters, comprised of ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, survived the harsh winter in the mountains to position themselves for a possible series of attacks in the spring. To keep open supply lines, the jihadists are conducting sporadic guerrilla attacks against the Lebanese army. Nusra and ISIS fighters generally have been fighting with one another, but in Lebanon there appears to be increasing coordination of their fighters, although their objectives are different, sources add.
According to Middle East analyst Mario Abou Zeid, elements of the Free Syrian Army, which has U.S. backing, also have begun to team up with Nusra fighters. “Free Syrian Army fighters had begun to lose hope of receiving any significant aid from foreign stakeholders,” Zeid said. “The well-supplied Nusra Front won the trust and loyalty of these fighters, which translated into cooperation in Qalamoun. There is a “new death triangle for ISIS,” Lebanese Interior Minister Mouhad al-Machnouq said recently, “stretching from the barren Lebanese lands of Arsal to the Palestinian Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp and Roumieh prison (in east Beirut), reaching Iraq and Raqqa,” the ISIS caliphate capital in Syria.
Arsal is where ISIS and Nusra began their foray last August inside northern Lebanon, taking hostages in the process, including numerous members of the Lebanese army. After the town of 35,000 residents exchanged hands a few times, Arsal has become a center of strict Islamic law imposed on its occupants.
The “death triangle” to which Machuouq referred, said Middle East economist Sami Nader, “suggests that Lebanon not only represents a strategic depth for Hezbollah and (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad’s regime, but also that ISIS is taking refuge within its borders to escape the international alliance’s airstrikes against it on the eastern front.”
For now, the Lebanese army has been thwarting numerous attacks in the surrounding towns in the north around Ras Baalbek, which is only about 25 miles from the historic Roman city of Baalbek, which has been a major tourist magnet. There have been periodic attacks around Baalbek and near Britel in areas controlled by the Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah but, to date, the Sunni jihadist attacks have been unsuccessful. Deep in Shia-controlled territory, Baalbek, where settlements are believed to go back 9,000 years, has withstood centuries of attacks from barbarians, the Greeks and the Romans. The city once was given as a gift by the Roman general Marcus Antonius – Marc Antony – to his lover, Egyptian queen Cleopatra, as a birthday gift.
ISIS ‘stepping stones’
Ras Baalbek, in the northern part of the Bekaa Valley, is in a Christian region of the country. Nusra and ISIS seek to target it as a stepping stone to such other ancient Christian towns in central Bekaa as Zahle, Firzel, Ablah and Drous (see map).
“(Jihadist fighters) are under pressure in the ongoing battle in Syria; in retaliation they may attack the Bekaa, but I assure you they will not be able to do more than hit and run operations,” one Lebanese source told WND. “The army is ready alongside the resistance (Hezbollah),” he said. “We will prevail, the takfiris (foreign fighters) will not prevail. God does not allow the takfiri to prevail.”
In the predominantly Christian region, Islamist fighters have threatened to attack churches and the Christians themselves. In response, the residents are taking up arms. “If Hezbollah did not exist, it would have been necessary to create it,” said Albert Mansour, a former government minister who is a resident of Ras Baalbek. “The party’s existence makes the people – including Sunnis, Shiites and Christians of the region – feel safe in the face of this strange formation,” referring to the presence of the Sunni jihadist fighters. According to Esperance Ghanem, however, such attacks would give the militants “both field and moral gains. The field aspect is related to how close these villages are to the international road connecting Beirut to Damascus,” Ghanem said.
Called the Al-Sham, or Damascus road, Ghanem said it is of strategic importance to supply lines to Syria and is a “vital crossing connecting the northern Bekaa to central and western Bekaa, where some Christian villages are located.”
Threatening supply route
Middle East expert Jean Aziz said the Damascus-to-Beirut road would cut the supply route between Hezbollah and the Syrian army and also represent a serious threat to the Syrian capital of Damascus itself. “The accomplishment of this would be highly dangerous for Hezbollah and thus cannot be taken lightly,” Aziz said.
Ghanem said it also connects the southern Bekaa region around Arkoub near the Syrian town of Beit Jinn, which remains under the control of the militants and an entry point from which the militants could try to get through to Arkoub. “This goal cannot be achieved unless the militants invest in the moral gains they are aiming to accomplish in the even that their plan in Ras Baalbek had worked and they had succeeded in displacing its residents as well as the residents of other regions by spreading fear across the Christian villages of the central and western Bekaa, guaranteeing there would be no resistance,” Ghanem said. To date, the Lebanese army has thwarted the plan by blunting their push into Tallet al-Hamra, even though the militants are expected to continue their probing attacks.
Nevertheless, Aziz said the Israeli-Syrian border area constitutes a natural geographical extension to the southwest of the Lebanese-Israeli border area. “Any gains by Sunni militant groups opposed to Hezbollah in this area would become a new front for Hezbollah in south Lebanon,” Aziz said. “It would also constitute something of a siege, as Hezbollah would be stuck between Israeli forces on the southern border of Lebanon and armed groups to the east along the border with Syria,” he said. “For Hezbollah, such a scenario would be unacceptable and impossible to endure” since, as Aziz said, “reports alleging cooperation between Israel and Jabhat al-Nusra makes this especially troubling for the organization.”
Aziz was referring to a third area where Lebanon becomes vulnerable, namely in the south opposite the Syrian Golan Heights. He said that area in the three-border area of Lebanon, Syria and Israel is symbolic for Hezbollah and Iran, where Israel on Jan. 18 fired on and killed a group of Hezbollah and Iranian personnel in the Syrian Golan, which has become an area of concern to Hezbollah and Iran. The Hezbollah member leading the group was Jihad Imad Mughniyah, the 25-year-old son of Imad Mughniyah, who was the senior Hezbollah military commander assassinated by Israel and, as reports now reveal, the Central Intelligence Agency on Feb. 12, 2008.
In addition to Jihad Mughniyah, there were five other Hezbollah personnel and Iranian Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, whom sources say was the depty for Syrian operations to Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Israel claims they were planning an attack on the northern part of the country. However, other sources tell WND that the Israelis knew the Hezbollah/Iranian group was planning an attack on Nusra fighters who occupy the area. In turn, this led to the charge that Israel is working with Nusra. “Some Israeli media outlets have further revealed direct cooperation between the militants and the Israeli army,” Aziz said, “and other media outlets have reported about the lack of animosity between the Israeli state and Jabhat al-Nusra, which represents al-Qaida in Syria, as well as Israeli reports about direct contacts with the Syrian opposition and mutual reassurances.”
Nusra’s positioning in the Syrian Golan is not only seen as threatening Hezbollah’s presence at that strategic location to ward off any southern invasion of Lebanon from the jihadists. But it is a strategic location for the Iranian-proxy group against Israel to its north.