Border Fighting Intensifies Between ISIS and Lebanon
By HWAIDA SAAD and RICK GLADSTONE
AUG. 4, 2014
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A deadly confrontation worsened on Monday between Lebanon’s armed forces and Islamist insurgents from Syria who seized the border town of Arsal over the weekend in what appeared to be the most serious spillover of the Syrian civil war into Lebanese territory since the conflict began more than three years ago.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that its forces were engaged in fierce battles with the Islamists in Arsal, where witnesses reached by telephone, including the deputy mayor, said shelling had hit the town from multiple directions and thousands of residents had fled.
Arsal is also one of the temporary homes for many of the Syrian war refugees who have sought sanctuary in eastern Lebanon, and witnesses said Lebanese Army checkpoints were refusing to let the refugees relocate deeper into the country. Some refugees said they were panicking because they had nowhere to go.
“Some residents here are angry with us — they’re refusing to host any of us thinking that we are behind such fighting, as if we were the ones who welcomed the insurgents,” said a refugee reached by phone, who identified himself only by his first name, Walid. He said at least one refugee encampment of tents had been burned by shelling.
“The situation is miserable,” said Arsal’s deputy mayor, Ahmad Flitti. “Now the shelters are full. Soon we are going to have shortages in drugs, and hospitals here will not be able to receive more wounded.”
The United Nations refugee agency’s Lebanon representative, Ninette Kelley, said in a statement that she had traveled to the Bekaa Valley region near the fighting on Monday and was conferring with Lebanese officials “to determine what additional supplies should be mobilized for civilians in need, including food, water and medicines.”
More than a third of the 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon are in the Bekaa Valley, according to United Nations refugee agency statistics.
The 15-member United Nations Security Council also expressed concern about the Syria war’s spillover into Lebanon. In a statement, the Council said it supported efforts by the Lebanese military and security forces “to counter terrorism and address other security challenges.”
The Lebanese Army statement said its casualties from three days of fighting totaled 14 soldiers killed, 86 wounded and 22 missing, with at least some of them presumed captured by the militants. More than 20 Islamist fighters were also believed to have been killed, but it was impossible to determine their precise casualties.
The Arsal fighting began on Friday when the Lebanese Army arrested Imad Ahmad Jomaa, the commander of a Syrian Islamist rebel group, in Arsal. His disciples, which included brigades affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, then attacked Lebanese troops, and the insurgents seized control of the town. They have demanded Mr. Jomaa’s release as a condition for any cease-fire.
“Let them release our emir and we are ready to pull out from all over the town,” said one of Mr. Jomaa’s deputies, reached by phone in Arsal, who identified himself as Abu Osama. “Or else we will escalate and expand, and we will ask for more demands.”
Cross-border clashes and shelling from the Syrian side have sometimes disrupted the Syria-Lebanon frontier, but the takeover of a Lebanese town by ISIS members was unprecedented. While the push into Lebanon by ISIS was limited, it reflected the aims of the group, whose fighters see the entire area as their future monolithic Islamic state.
“It’s another front for ISIS and another sign containment of the Syria crisis has failed,” said Andrew J. Tabler, of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Lebanese cabinet met in an emergency session on Monday to deal with the Arsal crisis, and Prime Minister Tammam Salam appeared to have ruled out negotiations with the town’s Islamist insurgent occupiers.
“There is no political solution with extremist groups who are manipulating the Arab communities under religious obscurantism and strange titles, seeking to transfer their sick acts into Lebanon,” Mr. Salam said in a televised statement. “Today, the only solution is the withdrawal of the gunmen from Arsal and its surroundings.”
Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York.