By Hussein Dakroub for The Daily Star —
BEIRUT: The battle with ISIS in the Qalamoun region and on the Lebanese-Syrian frontier has kicked off, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said Wednesday, pledging to uproot terrorist and takfiri groups based in areas near Lebanon’s border.
As Nasrallah spoke, Hezbollah and the Syrian army seized fresh territory from Nusra Front militants outside a northern Qalamoun town Wednesday, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station reported, while clashes continued unabated for a second day between party fighters and ISIS on Lebanon’s northeastern border.
“The battle with ISIS in Qalamoun, the eastern mountain range and the Lebanese-Syrian border has begun,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech addressing a conference on the intellectual interpretation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei which was held at the Lebanese University in the southern suburb of Hadath.
“They [ISIS] started the battle. No problem. But we will continue this battle to the end. We are determined to terminate this malicious terrorist and takfiri presence on our border no matter how precious the sacrifices,” he said. “For us, this decision is final.”
“I confirm our determination and our firm and strong will that we will no longer accept any terrorist or takfiri to remain on our borders, our outskirts and close to our villages,” Nasrallah added.
He said it was a matter of time before Islamist militants entrenched on the outskirts of Lebanon’s northeastern border are defeated.
Nasrallah added that hundreds of ISIS gunmen, backed by a large number of military vehicles, Tuesday attacked several Hezbollah positions on the outskirts of the village of Ras Baalbek on the Lebanese-Syrian border, assuming that this front was calm because the party was fighting Nusra Front militants on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal.
“Yesterday’s attacks had several targets at the psychological, moral, media and military levels. But Hezbollah fighters bravely confronted them, killing and wounding scores of Daesh gunmen and destroying a number of their vehicles,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah also suffered “a number of martyrs” during the fierce fighting with ISIS, but he did not say how many. ISIS militants launched surprise attacks on four Hezbollah posts early Tuesday on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, located about 7 kilometers north of Arsal, sparking the deadliest clashes on the border with Syria since the start of the Qalamoun offensive last month.
A security source told The Daily Star that eight Hezbollah fighters and 48 jihadis died in the initial attack and ensuing clashes.
The deaths brought to 39 the number of Hezbollah fighters killed since May 4, when Hezbollah and its Syrian army allies launched an offensive to oust jihadis from the Qalamoun mountain range along the border.
Until Tuesday, the offensive mostly targeted Nusra Front-led jihadis who controlled most of the Qalamoun region stretching from Arsal’s eastern outskirts down to the outskirts of Tfail.
But Tuesday’s battle marked ISIS’ participation in the battle. ISIS, which is hostile to both Nusra and Hezbollah, controls the outskirts north of Arsal.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah had achieved major victories against the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, since it entered Arsal’s outskirts more than a week ago, capturing important peaks and mountains.
“In the past few days, major achievements have been made in Qalamoun,” he said. “Major progress has been made in the past few days on the outskirts of Arsal. The Nusra Front has been dealt a real and humiliating defeat.”
“The important development is the beginning of the battle and confrontation with Daesh. It’s good that they started the fighting,” Nasrallah added.
A militant source in Qalamoun said ISIS initiated the attacks because Hezbollah had pulled its members from Josieh and Qusair toward the outskirts of Qalamoun, areas where it was easier to attack them. He claimed that ISIS, whose members have dwindled in the past few months, were looking to capture some of Hezbollah’s ammunition and other spoils in the attack.
The battle was ongoing between ISIS and Hezbollah on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa, as well as the countryside of the Syrian village of Josieh, the source said.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah and the Syrian army captured fresh territory from Nusra militants outside a northern Qalamoun town, Al-Manar TV reported.
It said the allied forces took over the areas of Shaabat al-Tasme and Shaabat Wadi al-Ahmar on the southern outskirts of government-held Jarajeer, destroying three military vehicles and a bulldozer.
The TV station said jihadis suffered “dozens of casualties” in the clashes, while the areas of Ras al-Koush and a section of al-Qadoumi Valley, were now under their firepower.
However, a security source told The Daily Star that 10 jihadis were killed in the battle.
The clashes took place on the southern outskirts of Jarajeer, located about 8 kilometers northeast of the Syrian village of Flita.
A later report said the allies also took areas identified as the Bloksat heights, which lie 2,400 meters above sea level and overlook the outskirts of Jarajeer, Qara and Arsal.
Hezbollah fighters clashed for a second day with ISIS militants on the eastern outskirts of Ras Baalbek, about 20 kilometers northwest of the fighting near Jarajeer.
Al-Manar TV said Hezbollah rocket fire destroyed two military vehicles belonging to ISIS on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, killing the militants inside.
Footage provided to Al-Manar showed one of the attacks, in which a Hezbollah fighter fires a Russian Kornet anti-tank missile at an ISIS vehicle that appeared to be at least a couple kilometers away, striking it with pinpoint accuracy.
Separate footage taken at the site of Tuesday’s clashes showed several ISIS corpses strewn on the rugged ground along with a variety of weapons seized from them. The weapons included grenades, explosives, rifles, ammunition and military fatigues.
Al-Manar said that Tuesday’s fighting, sparked when ISIS militants attacked four Hezbollah posts on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, left 50 militants dead and 80 others wounded.
Al-Manar reported this week that the Nusra Front has lost 90 percent of the territory it had controlled in Qalamoun before the start of the offensive, which began in southern Qalamoun and moved north toward Arsal. Tensions with ISIS may prevent Nusra from fleeing north amid the Hezbollah push