By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* —
On Sept. 13, Hezbollah announced that the Islamic State (IS) released one of the party’s captives, Ahmad Maatouk, which IS was holding hostage in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor in Syria. In return, Hezbollah released IS leader Abu al-Sous in west Qalamoun and another member of the organization, Abu Zeid. The Syrian army also allowed IS convoys and their families to head to Mayadeen city in Deir ez-Zor, after the US-led international coalition’s raids had prevented their buses from reaching the province and killed dozens of IS fighters and their families. The Buses were stuck in the Syrian Badiya(desert) between Homs Contryside and and Deir ez-zor since August 31.
As per the Hezbollah-IS agreement after the army offensive from the Lebanese side and Hezbollah and the Syrian army from the Syrian side, IS militants and their families left Lebanon’s barren lands and the Syrian Qalamoun area, after revealing the fate of the Lebanese soldiers they had abducted in August 2014 and handing over a Hezbollah detainee, Ahmad Maatouk and the six bodies of the party’s members held by IS.
The agreement that took effect Aug. 30 sparked resentful Lebanese, Iraqi and American reactions accusing Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of letting IS militants off the hook and allowing them to leave the Lebanese-Syrian borders without even prosecuting them for their crimes against the abducted Lebanese soldiers who were killed and their terrorist operations in Lebanon. Some of the IS militants had given in to Hezbollah, while others remained besieged by the Lebanese army, on one side, and Hezbollah and the Syrian army, on the other side, due to the offensives against IS positions on the Lebanese – Syrian borders on Aug. 18.
The March 14 Bloc and the Future Movement in Lebanon were the main critics of the agreement. Leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea said during a festival in Mehrab on Sep. 10, that Hezbollah, with the Syrian regime’s support, tried to deprive the Lebanese army of reaping the fruits of the moral victory of defeating IS and prevented the militants’ judicial pursuit, a few hours after the Lebanese army encircled them in their last area of concentration. Geagea added that Hezbollah negotiated with IS militants and facilitated their exit “as though no detainees were killed, no Lebanese soldiers and civilians were murdered or wounded and no explosions happened in Qaa, Beirut’s southern suburbs, Ras Baalbek or the Bekaa.”
A leading source in the Future Movement told The Levant News on condition of anonymity, “Hezbollah refused to negotiate with IS in 2014 to release the soldiers when they were alive, and today, it has agreed to negotiate to reveal their fate, although they are dead.”
For his part, Lebanese University teacher of Media at AUB Rabih Barakat said to The Levant News that the campaign of Hezbollah’s local and international foes against the deal with IS aims at tarnishing the role that the party played in the Joroud Arsal battles, by liberating them from Nusra Front and IS in July and August, due to the dispute over the legitimacy of its role in the Syrian war. Barakat added that Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon are afraid that the party will quickly invest in the battle politically, by showing its strength and increasing its influence. Besides, the US fears the deal might result in transferring hundreds of IS militants to a battlefront against Washington’s allies, The Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa.
Barakat noted that “Hezbollah would have preferred to turn the Joroud Arsal page with the least damage possible and the soonest. The interests of the party and Damascus necessitate occupying Washington’s allies rather than themselves with more battles.”
Lebanese political analyst Daoud Rammal talked to The Levant News about the circumstances of the agreement. He said, “With the tight noose on them in the Joroud area, the remaining IS militants put their families inside caves and locations where they hid. It seemed like the aim was to commit a massacre against these families to pit human rights organizations against Hezbollah and the Lebanese army. Even the critics would have been the first to criticize targeting these civilians.”
Rammal noted that IS militants were not handed over to the Lebanese judiciary because the aim of Fajr al-Joroud operation “was to reveal the fate of the abducted soldiers and expel IS from the Lebanese territories. This happened with the least damage possible. Besides, some leaders implicated in the assassination of the soldiers are in Roumieh Prison in Lebanon, as per their confessions before the Lebanese military court.” Those terrorists have confessed in their investigations about the crimes they committed during their attack on the Lebanese soldiers in Arsal. Among them were
Bilal Omar Miqati, and his cousin Omar Miqati (Abu Huraira), Bilal al-Atar, Abdul Rahman Azar ,Abdullah al-Jaghbir, Abu al-Bara), Rashid al-Maqb (Abu al-Leith) and Abu Mari al-Biruti.
Some accused Hezbollah of single-handedly ratifying the deal with IS. Rammal said that the Lebanese government assigned the case of the abducted soldiers over to the Head of General Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and only ratified IS’ surrender deal with Hezbollah, following the Lebanese authorities’ official approval.
For its part, Hezbollah responded to the criticism of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for moving IS militants to Deir ez-Zor. The party explained in a statement [on Au.30] the circumstances of transferring the militants from Qalamoun to Deir ez-Zor where Hezbollah is also fighting IS. They were reportedly moved for tactical reasons related to the priorities of the battle.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in that statement that negotiations with the IS militants was the “only and exclusive way” to resolve a national humanitarian issue of Lebanese soldiers kidnapped since 2014, while IS refuses to disclose their fate. He added that the IS bowed, after “a very harsh battle on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border and after losing most of its forces and the area of land controlled”. Nasrallah pointed out that “resort to a comprehensive military discount was possible and easy, but would have lost the issue of the fate of the Lebanese military.”
Abu Mustafa, a Hezbollah military leader, appeared on television Sept. 9, and it was the first time in the history of the party that a field officer speaks before the cameras without hiding his face. He was reporting live from Deir ez-Zor and talking about Hezbollah’s role in lifting the IS siege on the city [Sep.5]. The media, whether Hezbollah-affiliated or close to the party, put this field officer in the spotlight while fighting there. He directly addressed Iraqi, Lebanese and US politicians and anti-Hezbollah media that tried to portray Hezbollah’s battle with IS as staged.
Undoubtedly, Hezbollah’s leadership did not expect its agreement with IS to raise so much ire and tarnish the victory, which Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared Aug. 29 under the slogan “second liberation of Lebanon from extremists,” knowing that the first liberation freed the country from Israel May 25, 2000. Nasrallah appeared twice on television to clarify the agreement that freed the Lebanese Joroud area from extremists, making Lebanon the first country in the region cleansed of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Lebanese powers and Washington did not object to Hezbollah’s agreement with Jabhat al-Nusra July 29, 2017, which expelled the militants from Joroud Arsal to Idlib in Syria, in exchange for releasing Hezbollah’s detained militants and handing over the corpses of the dead ones to appease the flaring anger. The Lebanese powers exaggerated in criticizing the agreement with IS though, knowing that it had the same outcome. Just like the deal with Jabhat al-Nusra, IS terrorists were expelled from the Joroud area to avoid a tough battle with them that would have led to more casualties among the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and among civilians from IS families on the other. Ironically, the Syrian army and Hezbollah had liberated many Syrian areas and managed to lift the IS siege on Deir ez-Zor, even before the arrival of IS convoy that headed from al-Qalamoun Joroud and was hindered by the “International alliance” raids.
Translated by Pascale Menassa.
*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is the head of Beirut Center for Middle East Studies.