Ten months ago, the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front kidnapped around 30 Lebanese police and military men. Since then eight men have been released and four have been executed – either beheaded or with a gunshot to the back of the head. This story has gained relatively little attention outside of the country, especially when in comparison with the story of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh’s fiery demise.
The Syrian Civil War has taken a heavy toll on diminutive neighbor Lebanon. Fallout from the war has plagued the religiously-divided country through the form of car bombings, clashes, and a massive humanitarian crisis. To make matters worse, radical Islamist groups – including Nusra and the Islamic State – have gained a solid foothold along the country’s eastern border.
This presence has increased tensions along the border and lead to a series of battles that started last August after the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL, briefly overran the town of Arsal. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) drove the militants out and into the vast mountain range that separates Lebanon from Syria. But during these battles, the Islamic State and Nusra captured around 30 Lebanese servicemen. An undetermined number still remain in a period of captivity that is nearing the 10 month mark.
The captives’ families are at wits end after months of protests and negotiations with a collection of different intermediaries. Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, a political analyst and director of Beirut Center for Middle East Studies, told ThinkProgress in an email that the attention on this issue is scarce outside Lebanon for reasons relating to geopolitics.
“Jordan has good relations with the Gulf countries due to its location between Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Gulf states treat this country very well, in terms of funding, investment and jobs,” Mouzahem said. “The way ISIS burned Moaz Al-Kasasbeh was unique in terms of filming it and spreading it, although ISIS has burned dozens of Iraqi Shia soldiers before and after that and no one talked about it.”
It seems the selective attention to such issues is also ubiquitous inside Lebanon. The country was witness to a brutal civil war that lasted 15 years and security and stability is still not a concept the population associates with their homeland. The constant state of flux has left many Lebanese to simply switch off the news and make their best attempt to live as close to a normal life as possible.
The rest of the country is largely still divided – largely along sectarian lines. The civil war began as a fight between Christian nationalist and Palestinian militias, with other factions quickly taking sides usually determined by political belief. But as is often the case, the war took an ugly turn and quickly unraveled into a sectarian killing field where checkpoints would be erected to stop cars and execute members of the opposite sect. While the various sects generally live in peace among each other these days, sectarian fear still permeates the country and support for various factions is often drawn along religious lines.
“The capture of Lebanese soldiers by Nusra and ISIS is still a controversy issue in Lebanon,” said Mouzahem. “Some Lebanese support Nusra and justify their acts considering it [a part of the] Syrian revolution, while others exploit Nusra and ISIS in their battle against Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.”
The border-based militants have regularly demanded the release of prisoners in Roumieh prison – Lebanon’s largest holding facility. Prisoners are often separated by sect to avoid internal problems at Roumieh. About a third of the prisoners held in the notorious Block B are on charges of terrorism.
Certain politicians and the families of the Lebanese servicemen have called on officials to meet the militants’ demands. A succession of intermediaries — from prominent local imams to a government minister — has tried and failed to secure the release of the servicemen.
And it doesn’t look like they will be freed anytime soon. The LAF is continuing to launch operations against the Islamic State and Nusra along the border. Mouzahem said that holding onto the hostages would be beneficial in the coming weeks for the militants. “They are using them as a shield” he said.