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Paul McLoughlin

Show of force: Hizballah declares 'mission accomplished' against al-Nusra

Hizballah appear stronger than ever after the Arsal campaign [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 30 July, 2017

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In-depth: Hizballah say they have completed the first stage of a campaign in eastern Lebanon's Arsal region, but was it little more than an unnecessary show of force?

Lebanon's powerful Shia militia Hizballah has announced "mission accomplished" in the first stage of an operation against Sunni militants in eastern Lebanon.

A 46-vehicle convoy took journalists on a tour of the latest Lebanese territories to come under Hizballah control in the mountainous Arsal region, close to the Syrian border.

Fierce fighting took place there this week as Hizballah dislodged Syrian Sunni militants on both sides of the border with Lebanese army and Syrian regime support.

It concluded with Hizballah striking a deal with al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group - known as Fatah al-Sham, al-Nusra Front or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - after the militants' territory in Arsal shrunk to a five-kilometre strip of land.

Agreement

The agreement will see fighters and their families leave Lebanon for Idlib province in northern Syria, along with any other refugees who want to make the long, arduous and dangerous journey home.

Hizballah have been keen to show off their spoils, uncovering the hideout of the militants' 'emir' and a secret bomb-making factory, among the Fatah al-Sham bases.

This was Hizballah's justification for the campaign which will likely see the Shia militant group's prestige and power grow in Lebanon.

Despite a number of bomb attacks in Lebanon being linked to Sunni jihadists, the past year has been much quieter making the urgency of the campaign dubious.

"We detonated more than one car bomb and found numerous metal workshops for manufacturing bombs and mortars, with tons of explosive material in the workshops," Hizballah's media centre said.

"We accomplished the main objective of the operations by expelling the al-Nusra Front from the Qalamoun Mountains and the outskirts of Arsal. The security and military threat has been deterred."

Hizballah have portrayed the campaign as a selfless act of heroism for the benefit for Lebanese nation, but the urgency of the campaign is dubious

Self-sacrifice

Hizballah have portrayed the campaign as a selfless act of heroism for the benefit for Lebanese nation. 

Nasrallah has imbued his recent speeches with pan-Islamic and nationalist sentiments. He said the battle was on behalf of Sunni Muslims who have been victims of terrorism from al-Qaeda and Islamic State group and offered to hand over land won back to the Lebanese state.

"To the Christians and Muslims we offer this victory, and the Muslims that suffered most from terrorism are the Sunnis, specifically in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan where mosques are being bombed," he said during a televised victory speech on Thursday.

"In the battle against terrorism we are performing our duty and we do not expect gratitude and appreciation from anyone. We are performing our duty in front of our people."

Fighting terrorism has been the excuse used by Hizballah - and other foreign powers - for their involvement in the Syria war.

Excercise in power

Many believe the offensive was an exercise in power by Hizballah. It has captured positions held by militants for years within a week, while the army sat back and played a more defensive role.

"The Lebanese army represents all the Lebanese people as it fights to protect the land and Lebanon's interest, while Hizballah's fight is a class struggle," a Lebanese Forces source told Lebanese daily al-Jouhmouria

"Hizballah's main goal is to achieve the interest of the axis it belongs to, not Lebanon's interest."

Hizballah has no doubt entrenched its power in Lebanon as a dominant military force. It has secured the freedom of Hizballah fighters held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, while the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers held hostage by the Islamic State group is still unknown.

IS territories will be the next target of the Hizballah-Lebanese army Arsal military campaign. Many in Hizballah believe a victory should be relatively easy, facing just a few hundred jihadist fighters in a vast, isolated territory.

The attack from the Syrian side of the border grants the Bashar al-Assad regime more territory in Qalamoun, which will allow for the easier transfer of Hizballah militants to Syria and curb rebels' ability to cross the border.

Hizballah have been crucial to the regime's roll-back against the rebels and IS this year. It has also given Hizballah fighters crucial conventional battlefield experience and ensured the survival of an important patron. 

Perhaps most importantly, Hizballah's critical role in the Syria campaign sends out a strong message to Israel, the US and other enemies at home.

With the Arsal campaign, Hizballah may now be viewed less a militant group and more a powerful regional military force, while the Iran-Syria-Lebanon axis appears as strong as ever.

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