BEIRUT: Syria-based jihadi groups are gearing up for a major offensive deep into Lebanese territory along the eastern border with Syria to achieve two main goals: securing new supply routes and establishing a foothold as a prelude to setting up an Islamic emirate in Lebanon, analysts and military experts said.
According to retired Lebanese Army generals, ISIS and the Nusra Front, entrenched on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal, have long been preparing for such an attack, but have been hampered by bad weather conditions, particularly the severe blizzards that hit Lebanon in recent months.
“The two militant groups are just waiting for favorable weather conditions to launch their attack, which could happen in the second half of March,” they said.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general and an expert on terrorism, said a major attack on Lebanon by Daesh, Arabic acronym for ISIS, and the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, was inevitable because the two militant groups weren’t planning to come to Lebanon for tourism purposes.
“Daesh and the Nusra Front have been preparing military plans to attack Lebanon for quite some time. They have been militarily surveying areas on the eastern border in search of a weak belly where the Lebanese Army does not exist,” Jaber told The Daily Star.
“These tafkiri groups are not waiting for the snow to melt. They will strike when they deem the conditions are fit for their attack,” said Jaber, director of the Beirut-based think tank, the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research.
He said the two groups would try to break through Christian towns or mixed Christian-Sunni towns, such as Ras Baalbek, al-Qaa and Fakiha, areas on the eastern frontier with Syria where Hezbollah does not have any presence.
“The goal of the ISIS-Nusra attack is to undermine stability in Lebanon, strike the Lebanese Army, incite sectarian strife and hit Hezbollah in its stronghold in the Bekaa region,” Jaber said.
Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the two sides, the Syrian opposition groups, including ISIS and the Nusra Front, on the one hand and the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army on the other, are getting ready for a major battle when winter ends next month.
“All the parties are gearing up for the battle once the snow melts,” Abou Zeid told The Daily Star. He said the fighting would begin as soon as weather conditions improve.
Despite the heavy Army deployment, designed to tighten the noose around the jihadis holed up in caves on the outskirts of Arsal, Abou Zeid said the Nusra Front has managed to survive the siege over the past six months, having stored enough food supplies, ammunition and arms.
“But now because it is running out of supplies and ammunition, the Nusra Front will launch an attack into Lebanese territory whose main target is to have access to new supply routes,” he said.
Abou Zeid said ISIS has a goal totally different from that of the Nusra Front from any possible attack deep into Lebanese territory.
“ISIS will seek to establish a foothold in Lebanese territory as part of their long-term plan to set up an Islamic emirate in Lebanon,” he said.
Asked if the Syrian Army and Hezbollah would launch a pre-emptive strike to forestall possible attacks by ISIS and the Nusra Front, Abou Zeid said: “The Syrian Army and Hezbollah are already locked in fighting Syrian rebels in the south, seeking to capture Deraa. But the attack by the Syrian Army and Hezbollah has been repulsed by a mix of Syrian rebel groups.”
He added that should the Syrian Army and Hezbollah succeed in capturing Deraa, they would then launch a pre-emptive strike against ISIS and the Nusra Front in the Qalamoun region.
Among the options envisaged by the Nusra Front to open new supply routes is the Shebaa-Rashaya area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, he said.
Given the fact that the Nusra Front is so desperate for a new supply line, Abou Zeid said the Shebaa-Rashaya front carries a high risk of exploding in the face of the Syrian Army and Hezbollah.
Thousands of Nusra Front militants are deployed in the Syrian town of Qunaitra in the Golan Heights.
Amid growing fears of an impending jihadi assault when winter ends, the Lebanese Army, whose pre-emptive strikes against terror cells have already thwarted several suicide bomb attacks, is fully ready to repulse any new assault by ISIS and the Nusra Front, which are still holding 25 soldiers and policemen hostage. They were captured during the two groups’ incursion into Arsal last August.
“The Lebanese Army is always ready to confront any attack by any terrorist group in any area in Lebanon,” a senior military official told The Daily Star.
He recalled the militants’ botched attempt last month to overrun a military outpost near the northeastern town of Ras Baalbek, sparking fierce clashes between the Army and ISIS militants that left eight soldiers dead and 22 others wounded. At least 40 militants, whose bodies were discovered on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, were killed in the fighting, most of them in Lebanese Army airstrikes.
Asked if the Army was taking extraordinary military measures to face any possible militant attack, the official said: “These are military matters which we cannot disclose.”
In a televised speech earlier this month, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called on the Lebanese Army to be prepared to face attacks by ISIS and the Nusra Front when the snow melts at the end of winter on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.
Retired Army general Amin Hoteit warned of the impending danger posed by ISIS and the Nusra Front, saying he expected the two groups to launch their offensive in Lebanon in the second half of March. He called for coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies to forestall any jihadi attack.
“The aim of the attack is to seize territory and secure logistical supply lines,” Hoteit, a supporter of Hezbollah, told The Daily Star.
“On Lebanon’s eastern mountain range near the border with Syria, there are two terrorist groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS. These groups are unable now to carry out massive military operations because of the difficulty of movement and due to the snow,” he said.
“After their failure to occupy any village in the Qalamoun region, these groups will try to expand toward Lebanon, namely toward the towns of Arsal and Brital,” Hoteit said.
“Lebanon is facing a serious threat from these terrorist groups. In order for Lebanon to meet this challenge, the Lebanese Army’s readiness should be raised to a high level to confront any terrorist attack,” Hoteit added.
“Secondly, there should be coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies in order to put the terrorists in a pincer grip to restrict their movement toward Lebanon and prevent their return to Syria so that they can be killed,” Hoteit said.
Asked if the Lebanese Army is capable of repulsing a joint ISIS-Nusra Front attack, Hoteit replied: “If provided with the appropriate arms along with logistical and manpower support, the Army can accomplish this mission. But as matters stand now, the Army might need assistance and backing from the resistance [Hezbollah].”
Abou Zeid, the Carnegie researcher, said: “The Lebanese Army has defensive capabilities to repel any attack. But it lacks the needed military equipment for offensive purposes.”
Jaber, the retired Army general, said the Lebanese Army needs helicopters to repel any joint massed ISIS-Nusra attack. “But based on intelligence information, the Army is capable of confronting those terrorist groups and ambushing them,” he said.
According to Jaber, if ISIS and the Nusra Front attacked Lebanon, Hezbollah would intervene to help the Lebanese Army in repelling these groups.
Jaber lamented the fact that despite increased talk on the need to equip the Army with weapons to enable it to face jihadi groups, “the Army, except for the U.S. military assistance which is insufficient, has not received even a screw from French arms funded by the $3 billion Saudi grant.”
Earlier this month, the United States delivered $25 million worth of weapons, including heavy artillery, to the Lebanese Army, while France promised to send the first batch of Saudi-funded arms in April.
The Future Movement and Hezbollah, alarmed by the security threats posed to the country by Islamist militants, have been meeting to defuse sectarian tensions and last week began discussing a joint national strategy to fight terrorism.
The move came days after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on Lebanese parties, especially Hezbollah, to hammer out a national strategy to fight terrorism.
Hariri’s call has been welcomed by Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who has voiced support for an anti-terror strategy against Islamist incursions into Lebanon.